By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court upheld the state's controversial drug possession law on Thursday, ruling that defendants must prove that they did not know they were carrying an illegal substance.
In a 5-2 ruling, the state supreme court upheld a 2002 law which puts the burden of proof on defendants. At least 48 other states require the state to prove that defendants knew the substances they were carrying are illegal.
The opinion comes a year after federal judge in Orlando ruled the entire Florida law was unconstitutional, calling it a significant departure from the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
The July 2011 decision by U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven, who called the Florida law "draconian and unreasonable," led to a flurry of dismissals in drug possession cases in circuit courts around the state, including the case that made its way to the state's highest court.
On Thursday, however, Justice Charles Canady, said the Florida legislature was clear in its intent to crack down on drug trafficking by specifically eliminating the need for state prosecutors to prove that defendants knew what they were carrying was illegal.
Prosecutors must still prove that a defendant knew the drug was in their possession.
"In the unusual circumstance where a person possesses a controlled substance inadvertently, establishing the affirmative defense available under (the law) will preclude the conviction of the defendant," Canady wrote.
In dissent, Justice James Perry said the majority ruling relied on the flawed notion that it was "highly unusual" that innocent people would unknowingly carry around illegal drugs.
"Common sense to me dictates that the potential for innocent possession is not so highly unusual as the majority makes it out to be," Perry wrote.
As it stands, a final word on which ruling stands would have to be made by the U.S. Supreme Court because federal district court rulings are not binding on the state supreme court.
Derek Byrd, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the Florida law flies in the face of the concept of criminal intent, a "bedrock principle" of criminal law in the United States.
"In essence, someone could be given hydrocodone, be told it was a Tylenol and be guilty," Byrd said. "I'm a lifelong Floridian. It's embarrassing."
(Editing by David Adams and Cynthia Osterman)