State v. Benitez

Decision Date12 February 1981
Docket NumberNo. 57834,57834
Citation395 So.2d 514
PartiesSTATE of Florida, Appellant, v. Carlos M. BENITEZ and Esperanza Benitez, Appellees.
CourtFlorida Supreme Court

Jim Smith, Atty. Gen., and Calvin L. Fox, Asst. Atty. Gen., Miami, and Janet Reno, State Atty., and Arthur Joel Berger, Asst. State Atty., Miami, for appellant.

Joseph Beeler, and Brian Richard McComb, Miami, for appellees.

Philip Carlton, Jr. of the Law Offices of Philip Carlton, Jr., Miami, for Daniel Cowgill, amicus curiae.

ENGLAND, Justice.

This case comes to us on direct appeal from a trial court order determining that section 893.135, Florida Statutes (1979) Florida's newly-enacted "drug trafficking" statute is unconstitutional.

After Carlos and Esperanza Benitez attempted to sell one kilo of cocaine to undercover narcotics agents for $44,000, they were charged by information with "trafficking in cocaine" in violation of section 893.135. In ruling on motions to dismiss the charges, the trial court entered a lengthy order declaring section 893.135 to be facially invalid on a multiplicity of grounds. The state appeals that order, urging error in each of the trial court's rulings.

Section 893.135 is a unique response to a serious and growing concern of the legislature regarding illegal drug activities in the State of Florida. Subsection (1) of the new law establishes severe mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in various types of illegal drugs. Subsection (2) prevents the trial court from suspending, deferring or withholding the adjudication of guilt or the imposition of sentence on a person convicted under the law, and it eliminates the defendant's eligibility for parole during the minimum mandatory sentence. Subsection (3) provides an "escape valve" from the statute's rigors, based on the initiative of the prosecuting attorney, by permitting the court to reduce or suspend a sentence if a convicted defendant is willing to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in the detection or apprehension of others involved in drug trafficking.

Section 893.135 was enacted to assist law enforcement authorities in the investigation and prosecution of illegal drug trafficking at all levels of distribution, from the importer-organizer down to the "pusher" on the street. The harsh mandatory penalties of subsection (1), ameliorated by the prospect of leniency in subsection (3), were clearly calculated to provide a strong incentive for drug violators to cooperate with law enforcement authorities and become informers. No one argues that the elimination of illegal drug traffic is not a beneficial and worthwhile goal, or that the goals of this legislation are not meritorious.

Nonetheless, in their zeal to combat the flow and distribution of illegal drugs through this novel legislation, legislators knowingly glossed over alleged constitutional defects in the approach that was being developed. We in the judiciary do not have that luxury. Indeed, the trial judge's extensive and detailed order exhibits the multiple, serious difficulties which this statute poses under well-established constitutional principles. We discern six major challenges to the constitutionality of section 893.135, one directed at the mandatory penalties and five directed at the escape valve in subsection (3). The state also half-heartedly challenges the appellees' standing for the first time on this appeal. This last challenge being the easiest to treat, we discuss it first.

1. Standing

The basic rule governing the standing of parties challenging statutory enactments was recently stated in Sandstrom v. Leader, 370 So.2d 3, 4 (Fla.1979):

Fundamental constitutional principles dictate that one may not challenge those portions of an enactment which do not adversely affect his personal or property rights... Such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy is necessary "to assure that concrete adverseness which sharpens the presentation of issues upon which the court so largely depends for illumination of difficult constitutional questions(.)" (citations omitted).

The state argues that, because appellees have not yet been convicted, they have no personal stake in this penalty-oriented statute.

To state the assertion is to demonstrate its absurdity. A party subject to criminal prosecution clearly has a sufficient personal stake in the penalty which the offense carries. This is wholly unlike cases in which criminal defendants have challenged portions of a statute which have nothing to do with their prosecution. See State v. Millington, 377 So.2d 685 (Fla.1979); State v. Champe, 373 So.2d 874 (Fla.1978).

2. Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Appellees argue that the mandatory minimum sentences of section 893.135(1) violate the cruel and unusual punishment clauses of the state 1 and federal 2 constitutions. Relying on various death penalty decisions of the United States Supreme Court, 3 they first contend that the mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutionally eliminate the exercise of discretion in sentencing. This argument was rejected by this Court in McArthur v. State, 351 So.2d 972 (Fla.1977), and warrants no further discussion here.

Appellees also argue that the mandatory sentences in section 893.135 constitute cruel and unusual punishment since they are unnecessarily severe and disproportional to the nature of the crime. This Court has consistently upheld minimum mandatory sentences, regardless of their severity, against constitutional attacks arguing cruel and unusual punishment. See, e. g., McArthur v. State, 351 So.2d 972 (Fla.1977); Banks v. State, 342 So.2d 469 (Fla.1976); O'Donnell v. State, 326 So.2d 4 (Fla.1975). The dominant theme which runs through these decisions is that the legislature, and not the judiciary, determines maximum and minimum penalties for violations of the law. While it is often said that in an extreme case wherein the sentence was grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime the legislature's judgment would run afoul of the constitutional prohibition, this Court has never addressed such a situation in the context of statutory sentencing minima.

The recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U.S. 263, 100 S.Ct. 1133, 63 L.Ed.2d 382 (1980), indicates that similar considerations prevail under the federal constitution. In that case, the Court held that a mandatory life sentence imposed on the petitioner pursuant to a Texas recidivist statute did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the eighth amendment. The majority's analysis of this area noted that:

(t)his Court has on occasion stated that the Eighth Amendment prohibits imposition of a sentence which is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.... In recent years this proposition has appeared most frequently in opinions dealing with the death penalty.... Because a sentence of death differs in kind from any sentence of imprisonment, no matter how long, our decisions applying the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment to capital cases are of limited assistance in deciding the constitutionality of the punishment meted out to Rummel.

Outside the context of capital punishment, successful challenges to the proportionality of particular sentences have been exceedingly rare.

Id., 445 U.S. at 271, 100 S.Ct. at 1138 (citations omitted). After analyzing one of these rare successful challenges, Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 30 S.Ct. 544, 54 L.Ed. 793 (1910), the majority concluded:

Given the unique nature of the punishments considered in Weems and in the death-penalty cases, one could argue without fear of contradiction by any decision of this Court that for crimes concededly classified and classifiable as felonies, that is, as punishable by significant terms of imprisonment in a state penitentiary, the length of the sentence actually imposed is purely a matter of legislative prerogative.

Id., 445 U.S. at 273, 100 S.Ct. at 1139 (footnote omitted).

The penalties imposed by section 893.135 are certainly severe, but they are by no means cruel and unusual in light of their potential deterrent value and the seriousness of the crime involved. See McArthur v. State; O'Donnell v. State; accord, People v. Broadie, 37 N.Y.2d 100, 371 N.Y.S.2d 471, 332 N.E.2d 338, cert. denied, 423 U.S. 950, 96 S.Ct. 372, 46 L.Ed.2d 287 (1975).

3. Due Process-Vagueness

Little discussion is needed concerning appellees' suggestion that subsection (3) is impermissibly vague in defining a convicted defendant who is eligible for lenient treatment as "any person ... who provides substantial assistance in the identification, arrest, or conviction of any of his accomplices, accessories, co-conspirators, or principals." Being a description of a post-conviction form of plea bargaining rather than a definition of the crime itself, the phrase "substantial assistance" can tolerate subjectivity to an extent which normally would be impermissible for penal statutes. Cf. Linville v. State, 359 So.2d 450 (Fla.1978) (statutory definition of proscribed activity held unconstitutionally vague). The contested phrase, in any event, is susceptible of common understanding in the context of the whole statute. Schultz v. State, 361 So.2d 416 (Fla.1978). There is no due process infirmity.

4. Equal Protection

Appellees' suggestion that subsection (3) denies equal protection of the law to convicted defendants who cannot provide "substantial assistance" to law enforcement officials is patently without merit. This legislation manifestly passes the rational basis test. See Hamilton v. State, 366 So.2d 8 (Fla.1978).

5. Separation of Powers

Two basic arguments by appellees are directed at Florida's constitutional separation of governmental powers. Art. II, § 3, Fla.Const. First, they assert that subsection (3) encroaches on the Court's rule-making role, Art. V, § 2(a), Fla.Const., in that it conflicts with Rule 3.800(b), Rule 3.720(b), and ...

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