Drug crimes have long been a priority for law enforcement agencies in Florida, given the state’s high population, booming tourism industry, and proximity to drug trafficking routes. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports over 130,000 drug-related arrests each year in Florida, about 18,000 of those in the Tampa area alone.
These offenses range from simple possession to widespread drug distribution schemes. Drug possession charges are by far the most common. What might seem like a minor offense to some can actually carry serious and long-lasting consequences, however. Penalties for drug possession in Florida can range from a misdemeanor conviction with up to a year in jail and $1,000.00 in fines, or felony convictions with prison terms up to 30 years and $10,000.00 fines. Additional consequences of a drug conviction can include denied applications for jobs and housing, and other professional and reputational harms.
Legal Standards for Drug Possession in Florida
Under Florida law, a person cannot be in actual or constructive possession of a controlled substance unless the substance was obtained with a valid prescription. A person also cannot bring a controlled substance into Florida from another state unless authorized to do so. In most cases, possession is a felony and the degree of the felony will depend on the weight of the substances found on a person.
What is “actual possession under Florida law? Actual possession essentially means a person has the substance in hand, in a container within ready reach, or has it in close proximity. In other words, the drug is in the immediate vicinity and under that person’s control. (See Harris v. State, 954 So.2d 1260 (2007)
What is “constructive possession”? Constructive possession under Florida Law means that the defendant has control over the substance and knows where the drug can be located for use. For example, if the person does not have the drug on them or within easy reach, but knows where it is in another room, that may constitute constructive possession.
What Prosecutors Must Prove to Convict for Drug Possession in Florida
Prosecutors must prove each of the following to obtain a conviction in drug possession cases:
- The defendant had actual or constructive possession of the substance;
- The substance was a controlled substance, within the meaning of Florida Statutes Sec. 893.03;
- The defendant had knowledge of the substance, its location and that it was a controlled substance (or should have reasonably known it was a controlled substance);
- The defendant was not authorized to possess the controlled substance, by prescription, occupation, or otherwise.
The prosecution must show that the defendant had dominion and control over the product in question, and that they “possessed” the drug in the legal sense of the word. The facts can get murky if drugs were found in a location with several other people, where the defendant’s knowledge and control of the substance may come into question.
Potential Defenses to a Drug Possession Charge
A defendant faced with drug possession charges may have one or several potential defenses available. For example:
- They had a valid prescription for the controlled substance. During the course of the arrest, they may not have had this information available but can demonstrate it to the court.
- They did not know the substance in their possession was illegal. Since knowledge is an element of the crime, a defendant may be able to refute this in certain situations.
- The drug belonged to somebody else. Even if a substance was found within somebody’s reach or they had some kind of proximity to it, it may have been put there by somebody else nearby or with access. “Mistaken identity” situations can and frequently do occur – for example, you drove a friend’s car without knowing they had a bag of drugs in the glove compartment.
- Law enforcement violated your Constitutional rights during their search and seizure of the controlled substance. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures that violate certain privacy rights. If an officer obtained evidence without a search warrant, or without probable cause to search your person or vehicle/premises, that evidence could potentially be barred from the case. (This is a complex area of the law, and it is crucial to have strong legal representation when asserting your Constitutional rights.)
As you can see, conviction or a guilty plea is not a foregone conclusion in Florida drug possession cases. If you have been charged with a drug possession crime, you must seek skilled legal help as soon as possible. The stakes are too high, and consequences too severe, to allow a simple mix-up or mistake to cloud your future.
Our Tampa Criminal Defense Law Firm Can Help You in Drug Possession Cases
Our Tampa criminal attorneys at Trombley & Hanes, P.A., know the law and your rights in these situations. We also understand the anguish and stress that criminal proceedings can bring. We’ve helped others defend against drug possession charges in the Tampa area and across Florida, and can help you too. We will diligently review all facts involved in your case, including the prosecution’s evidence and the manner in which it was obtained by law enforcement. Under certain circumstances, you might be eligible for a reduction of charges or even a dismissal of your case. Contact us today for help.