Florida Counterfeiting Law Found Unconstitutional
The United States and Florida Constitutions allow some interference with individual rights, but a legislature may not enact a criminal statute that violates the right to due process. In the case of State v. Thomas, a person charged with possession of a counterfeit payment instrument challenged the law as an unconstitutional strict liability statute.
Trespasser had 35 stolen checks
Mr. Thomas was arrested for trespassing after receiving a warning. He had in his possession a suitcase containing items that indicated possible counterfeiting, including 35 checks with others' names on them, blank check stock, a printer, and Florida identification that did not belong to him.
He was charged with eight counts of counterfeiting a payment instrument and possessing a counterfeit payment instrument in violation of Florida law. He filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that the law was unconstitutional on its face for creating strict liability for possessing a counterfeit payment instrument.
Legislature "meant" to include fraudulent intent element
The trial court found that the statute had two parts-the first prohibited the counterfeiting of an instrument with intent to defraud, and the second part made it unlawful to merely possess any counterfeit payment instrument. The second part was declared to be unconstitutional under the Florida and United States Constitutions.
The argument put forth by the State of Florida on appeal was that the legislature meant to include the element "with intent to defraud" in the part prohibiting possession, just as it had in the section prohibiting the manufacture of a counterfeit payment instrument. The state urged the appeals court to read the statute according to what it termed "the logical legislative intent" of the law, but the defendant argued that the law should be interpreted just as written.
Law is poorly written, but unambiguous
Courts may not add or rearrange words or punctuation to change the meaning of the words used in a law when it is clear and unambiguous. The rule was stated in a number of Florida cases that courts will not look behind the statutes' plain language or resort to rules of construction to see what the legislature intended.
But as the defendant Mr. Thomas argued, the law expressly makes innocent and protected conduct unlawful; it plainly says that the mere possession of a counterfeit payment instrument is a felony. For example, as written, a contractor would violate the Florida counterfeiting law if he took a check as payment for a job and did not know the check was counterfeit.
Interference with individual rights has its limits
Due process allows a reasonable amount of interference with the personal and property rights of people for legitimate reasons such as law enforcement. The enforcement of a law may entail the regulation or prohibition of some innocent acts in the public interest. In this case, the legislature could have easily drafted the counterfeiting law to include an intent to defraud, and would have avoided infringement on innocent or protected conduct. The appeals court agreed with the Orange County Circuit Court that the law violated Mr. Thomas' due process rights, and affirmed the dismissal of the charges for possession of a counterfeit payment instrument.
The defendant in this case correctly challenged the law, as a conviction for counterfeiting requires specific proof. Credibility and evidence questions regarding such charges can change the status of a criminal counterfeiting case, so it is essential to have experienced legal representation as soon as possible.