Harsh drug trafficking sentences may get major overhaul in Florida

News Channel 8

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Going back to the days of reputed drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Cartel and former Panamanian ruler Manuel Noriega, Florida’s drug trafficking laws – and their stiff minimum mandatory prison sentences – have been viewed as some of the toughest in the nation.

In a state that has been in the death grip of the opioid crisis since pill mills began to be shut down in 2010, those very same laws designed to punish the worst offenders and break up intricate drug cartels have sent thousands of first-time offenders and addicts to prison for years.

Now one Tampa Bay area lawmaker says it’s time for a major change to those laws – by putting more power back in the hands of judges to decide what an appropriate sentence is.

Republican State Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg has introduced Senate Bill (SB) 694 that would allow judges to waive minimum mandatory sentences without prosecutor’s approval in certain situations. SB-694 cleared the Criminal Justice Committee with a 5-1 vote.

SB-694 would allow exceptions in sentencing if three criteria are established. First, that the defendant was not engaged in ongoing criminal activity related to drug trafficking in their individual case. Second, the defendant “did not use or threaten to use violence or use a weapon” during the incident for which they are charged. Third, the defendant did not cause serious injury or death to another person during the crime.

It’s the first criteria that would literally cover first time offenders, addicts who are caught with a trafficking amount of prescription pills or opioids and other offenders who are not your typical dealer.

To understand why this provision would radically change the landscape of drug trafficking prosecutions, it is important to understand what exactly “trafficking” means in Florida.

NOT YOUR “MIAMI VICE” STYLE DRUG TRAFFICKING

During the height of the cocaine and crack cocaine epidemics from the 1970s and 80s – even into the 90s – drug trafficking was glamorized by films like Al Pacino’s “Scarface” and NBC’s popular show “Miami Vice.” It’s these stereotypes of kilos of cocaine stacking up in a hotel room or being stored on million-dollar speedboats doing drug runs in and out of Miami that carried over into the drug trafficking prosecutions when it came to prescription pills.

Florida Statute 893.135 defines trafficking as selling, purchasing, manufacturing, delivering, bringing a controlled substance (like opioids) into the state of Florida or simply possessing a certain weight of that particular drug.

Notice the “or” in that sentence, meaning any one of those scenarios combined with a certain amount of a particular drug would have someone facing first-degree felony drug trafficking charges as opposed to a simple possession charge.

Those trafficking charges, as previously mentioned, carry minimum mandatory prison sentences based on the weight of the drug involved. Here are two examples:

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