Supreme Court Mines Florida Drug Law for Intent Language

WASHINGTON (CN) — Probing the gun-possession conviction of a Florida felon, the Supreme Court wrestled, not for the first time Tuesday, with a law that toughens prison time for people with specific criminal records.

The argument in Washington began this morning with a focus on language in the Armed Career Criminal Act that says a sentencing enhancement is possible for those with a prior “offense involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent.”

Though his client Eddie Lee Shular had some six prior drug convictions, attorney Richard Summa said they should not have triggered the ACCA’s sentencing enhancements because Florida’s statute makes no mention of intent.

“I am not trying to convince the court that Mr. Shular himself acted without guilty knowledge,” Summa said in court this morning. “I’m trying to convince the court that, as a matter of law, he was not found to have acted with guilty knowledge. And the court cannot presume, however commonsense it may be, to assume that he acted with guilty knowledge, because the question whether a defendant acts with guilty knowledge is a question of fact and that has to be determined in a Florida court.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch posed tough questions to both sides, needling Summa on Shular’s expectations after his many drug convictions.

“Aren’t you on fair notice when you have those convictions, even if you think those convictions are unfair, that you shouldn’t possess firearm,” he asked.

And to the government’s lawyer, Kavanaugh argued that the ACCA’s use of the word “involved” appears particularly sweeping.

“Everything in the world pretty much involves everything else, at some level of connection,” Gorsuch said. “And what do we do about the fact that this statute would, at least possibly, capture a state law that had a draconian penalty for delivering a drug without knowing what it is? I mean ‘involves’ would seem to capture that. Your colleague on the other side says there’s a vagueness concern here that you’re ultimately inviting a constitutional challenge on.”

Jonathan Bond, assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, said courts need only look to the elements to understand the involvement clause.

“If they necessarily entail this conduct, game over,” Bond said. “If it’s a straightforward inquiry, at least in the mine-run of cases.”

Summa emphasized in his argument that the Florida law is unique “because even the purchase of personal use quantity of drugs is punishable as a second degree felony by up to 15 years in prison.”

“Including offenses such as prescribed by Florida does — is not consistent with the purpose of the statute,” he said. “I think you expressed the purpose of the statute quite well to capture the worst of the worst offenders, but this — Florida’s is so broad that it would capture the least culpable conduct. It captures persons such as a truck driver who is hired to deliver a — drive a shipment from point A to point B, and so the truck driver knows nothing about what is in the shipment. All he knows is his job is to take it from point A to point B.”

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