Strict Liability and Trivial Drug Offenses.

About ten years ago on a whim, I bought Barron’s Law Dictionary by Steven H. Gifis. And I have to tell you, this book is a treasure. Although primarily meant for lawyers and paralegals, it is so simple, any layman can understand it. And he cites precedent and gives examples. It’s small (the one I got at least). But it is well worth the money, I highly recommend it.

Anyways, while randomly leafing thru it once, I came across an interesting entry for strict liability. It seems strict liability offenses don’t involve intent. You are held responsible even if you had no idea you were commiting the crime. For example, if you were in an airport, and someone snuck something into you suitcase, even if you had no idea it was there, you could be held accountable. Mr. Gifis then goes on to assure the reader that strict liability crimes are typically regulatory and minor traffic crimes. Since the these laws have the potential to be so unfair and misused, he goes on, the courts (in the US) typically hold them to higher standard–proving that it was necessary to make a law a strict liability offense. The penalties are usu. much less, he says, except for trivial drug possession crimes, which can be quite substantial he says. Then he leaves it right there.

What am I missing here? Why are legislators justified in making trivial drug offenses (with their major penalties) strict liability offenses? I mean what is the logic behind this? Grifis doesn’t say. But I (and I hope the rest of you) am appalled by this. What am I missing?

I await your replies. And thank you in advance to all who reply:)

Drug possession offenses are not strict liability in any meaningful sense, in any jurisdiction I’m aware of. The example of the drugs being slipped into a briefcase would not result in liability.

This is a GD, not a GQ. Massively so.

No, I am not debating the morality of the question. This is just a legal question, in my opinion at least:).

And the answer is that the author of the book is mistaken about possession being a strict liability offense.

This is a quote from the book:

Barron’s Law Dictionary Steven H. Gifis, page 490, ©1996.

As a side note, the author of that book was apparently disbarred in 1999. Unless there’s another attorney with the same name.

Since this seem to be nothing more than a General Question, I’ll leave it here. Pending further developments


For the quote, is there a footnote or reference or case citation of any kind?

In relation to what I quoted, all he had was this: “Model Penal Code §2.05” if that’s any help.

EDIT: Actually, even that is a little after what I just quoted. It may still be part of it though, I don’t know.

Looks like he was disbarred for financial misdeeds, though. So it doesn’t necessarily invalidate anything about his knowledge of the law.

While off topic it reminds me that I’ve seen several local attorneys disbarred in relatively recent memory for the same thing (misappropriate of escrowed client funds.) I guess it’s something many lawyers, who are often small business owners, succumb to temptation with…

Isn’t statutory rape a strict liability crime, also? The penalties for that can be quite severe.

“[C]ertain instances such as drug and weapons offenses” is pretty vague, though. Is the author referring to somebody slipping a half ounce of pot into your backpack without your knowledge? Or is there some higher threshhold to be met, like endangering others while under the influence? There’s no way to tell from that sentence, so without further details I’m going to hold off on being appalled for now.

Here’s 2.05 of the Model Penal Code:

Which is why I prefaced with my comment with, “as a side note.”

Anyway, I can’t prove him wrong without looking up all 50 states’ drug laws, but I’m 99% sure that no state attempts to impose liability for unknowing possession of illegal drugs. If they did, it would likely be unconstitutional.

ETA: That doesn’t necessarily apply to crimes with sentences less than 12 months (i.e. misdemeanors).

Looking at drug crimes, it looks like the “schoolyard statute” is strict liability (21 USC 860, possessing with intent to distribute or manufacturing illegal drugs within 1000 feet of a school, university, playground or public housing or 100 feet of a youth center, swimming pool or video arcade doubles the sentence). Also, 21 USC 861 (forbidding people to employ minors to sell drugs) is strict liability (see US v Chin and US v Cook).

It also looks like some of the Len Bias laws making drug manufacturers or distributors responsible for overdoes deaths are, or at least were, strict liability. (State v Ervin)

Oh, also 21 USC 859 (sale to people under 21 leading to enhanced penalty) is strict liability (US v Pruitt).

A crime can have a strict liability element (i.e. distance from school), but that doesn’t make it a “strict liability” crime in the sense the OP is using because some of the elements of the crime require a level of culpability (i.e. knowing possession of the drugs).

Oh, also (and sorry for the multiple posts), there’s Department of Housing And Urban Development v. Rucker (local public housing authorities are allowed to evict tenants for drug-related activity of non-tenant relatives or guests regardless of whether tenants knew, or should have known, about the activity)

I assume this addresses the non sequitur of unknowingly possessing drugs with intent to distribute them?