Bill Giving Judges Discretion Over Certain First-Time Drug Offenders Narrowly Passes

Mar 3, 2014

A bill revising the penalties for trafficking certain illegal drugs narrowly cleared its first Senate hurdle Monday. It’s the second time lawmakers have attempted to give it a hearing.

Last month, Tampa Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner tabled her bill so concerns from Republican members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the Florida Sheriff’s Association, and State Attorneys could be addressed.

Joyner says her aim is the same: give judges the discretion not to impose a three-year minimum mandatory sentence for a first-time offender caught in possession of a small amount of illegal drugs, including cocaine and LSD. On Monday, she told the committee she changed the measure to include certain criteria to make that happen.

“The trafficking violation only includes possession. It cannot be argued that the amendment applies to selling, manufacturing, or delivering a controlled substance. The defendant must also demonstrate that the possession of the controlled substance does not involve possession with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver the controlled substance,” said Joyner.

Still, her bill raised questions from former lawmaker and current Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg, representing the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

“Under this bill, now we have to prove intent to sell or don’t we have to prove intent to sell? Because it seems to conflict with the statutes, with jury instructions, with case law…it seems like now, if this bill passes, we now have to prove intent to sell, and the size of the drugs does not give us that inference any longer,” said Aronberg.

Joyner agreed to look into that, and the bill passed 4-3 with two Republicans voting alongside Democrats. According to the Criminal Justice Impact Conference, her bill could save the state at least $30 million and could result in about 450 fewer incarcerations over a five year period.

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