Agresta v. City of Maitland

There’s no denying that public opinion on the dangerousness of cannabis has changed dramatically in recent years. Florida has not taken the steps that some states have taken to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, let alone for general use. But there’s evidence of a change in public opinion in Florida as well.

Florida has legalized “Charlotte’s Web,” a low-THC version of cannabis, for use by patients with certain serious medical conditions. And although a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medical use failed to reach the 60% threshold necessary for enactment, it did garner the majority of the vote (with more than 57% in favor), reflecting that Floridians’ attitudes are changing along with the rest of the country.

Is this changing public opinion impacting judicial decision-making? The February 20, 2015 decision of Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeal in Agresta v. City of Maitland, gives a hint that that it may be. At issue in Agresta was whether forfeiture of a house used to cultivate cannabis violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, property used in the commission of a crime can be seized. But the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits seizure of property, in that it prohibits “excessive fines.”

Joseph Farley (now deceased; the appellant, Agresta, was the representative of Farley’s estate) was convicted of cultivating cannabis in a house he owned in in Maitland and of stealing electricity in doing so, as well as of misdemeanor possession of cannabis. After the convictions, the City of Maitland filed suit to seize his house, which was within 1,000 feet of a school. The trial court ordered the house forfeited to the city.

On appeal, Agresta argued that seizing the house was unconstitutionally excessive and disproportionate to Farley’s crimes. A majority of the 5th DCA panel agreed.

The key issue in the case was the extent of harm caused by Farley’s crimes. To the majority, the main factor was that he had pleaded guilty to crimes for which the maximum monetary punishment was an $11,000 fine. Farley’s house, on the other hand, was valued at between $238,000 and $295,000. 

In the majority’s view, there was no basis to punish Farley with a forfeiture of property that was worth much more than the maximum fine he could have faced. Society’s valuation of the harmfulness of the crimes was critical, and “consideration of the fines approved by the legislature indicates the monetary value society places on the harmful conduct.” 

So it was improper to impose on Farley a forfeiture of property with a much greater value than the maximum fine. In what may (or may not) be a reflection of changing societal views on the harmfulness of marijuana, the majority stated that there was “no evidence that Farley caused harm beyond his commission of the offenses underlying his convictions.” (It’s impossible to know whether the judges in the majority would have reached a different conclusion if Farley had been convicted of using the house to manufacture some other type of illegal drug.)   

a consideration of the fines
approved by the legislature indicates the monetary value society places on the harmful
conduct.

One need look no further than Judge Berger’s dissenting opinion in Agresta to see a much harsher view of the harmfulness of Farley’s conduct, and a resulting contrasting conclusion. Part of Judge Berger’s disagreement with the majority was over whether to consider not only the crimes for which Farley was convicted (by way of a plea deal), but also the crimes with which he was originally charged.

But part her disagreement with the majority appears to have been based on her view of the harmfulness of Farley’s crime of cultivating cannabis:

In determining the harm caused by the defendant, we cannot ignore the public safety concerns posed by trafficking in drugs….While the actual harm Farley caused may not be able to be quantified, the potential harm caused by the magnitude of his enterprise is certainly great and cannot be discounted….Farley was a drug grower, cultivator, and dealer who used the property forfeited solely for the purpose of continuing his criminal enterprise.

Accordingly, Judge Berger did not feel seizure of the house to be grossly disproportionate to the crime, despite the disparity between the value of the house and the maximum fine Farley could have faced for the crimes of which he was convicted.

Cultivation and possession of cannabis, (except for Charlotte’s Web in very limited circumstances), of course, remains illegal under Florida law as well as under federal law. Judges will undoubtedly continue to faithfully apply the law as written, even when it’s unpopular to do so. But there are times when public opinion can impact legal analysis (such as in determining the monetary value society places on the harmfulness of a crime, as in Agresta), so if public opinion continues to change regarding cannabis, it will be no surprise to see effects on appellate courts’ jurisprudence.