Monday, March 06, 2006


You might think Florida drug laws for hard street drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin are the only drugs where Defendant receive significant punishment, but even drugs like oxycodone from prescription fraud and prescription drug abuse often trigger mandatory minimum sentences for surprisingly small amounts of the drug. A mandatory minimum sentence is one in which the Judge overseeing a criminal case has no discretion other than to sentence the Defendant to a significant amount of time over objections and hopes for leniency from your favorite Clearwater Criminal Defense Attorney.
Many years ago in the mid 1980's when I was a prosecutor in Pinellas County, Florida, I handled what was then the first major twenty-five year mandatory minimum heroin case in the state of Florida. Yet there was no confidential informant, no wire tap, no large scale law enforcement investigation in apprehending the defendant.
Instead a car was stopped by officers in St. Petersburg, Florida late at night with an inoperative tail light. The driver and passengers were told to get out of the vehicle.
Incident to a search of the vehicle a small packet of heroin was found under the seat. Everyone in the car was arrested and eventually everyone pled to three years - a reduced offer made by the State Attorney's office because no one had yet been convicted of a twenty-five year minimum mandatory sentence in Florida. Everyone pled that is, but one man, a man who was in the back seat, passenger side of the vehicle.
I will never forget at trial in the ugly gray Criminal Court Complex in Clearwater holding the neatly tight-wrapped heroin foil packet in front of the jury and thinking even as I was speaking to them - urging them to convict because the Defendant was in close proximaty to the drugs and therefor must have known about it - that it was a very, very small packet that seemed to weigh so little.
Yet the jury did convict. The next day at sentencing the wise old (he's no longer on the bench where judges are always young when writing about them) judge said he'd been unable to sleep the night before. He granted a new trial to avoid having to sentence the man to the twenty-five year minimum mandatory sentence.
With the judge's prodding three years was again offered for him to plea. He refused. I took it to trial again, convicted him a second time. On the spot the judge sentenced him to a twenty-five year prison term.
I've often wondered how the judge slept that night and suppose that like me he had little problem. The very impersonal nature of the judicial system helps to forestall any notions of absolute justice instead merely fostering a fealty to the Law even when the results are unjust. Are we really better off as a society because that the young man spent the better part of his life in jail?
Yet even more surprising than the harshness of the law in Florida for street drugs is that the drug laws are no less brutal when the drug is obtained through uttering a fraudulent prescription or by forging a script at a local pharmacy. The minimum mandatory applies to many of these drugs, some with common brand names such as tylenol 3 that may unexpectedly contain codeine or one of the many other pain killers not available directly over the counter. Offenders often find themselves looking at three, fifteen or twenty-five year mandatory minimum sentences with Clearwater Criminal Defense Lawyers doing whatever is possible to find ways around the harsh sentences.