Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Trafficking

In State v. Benitez, 395 So. 2d 514 (Fla. 1981), the Court addressed a separation of powers challenge to a drug trafficking statute ( section 893.135, Florida Statutes) which established severe mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking in various types of illegal drugs, prevented 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 eliminated the defendant's eligibility for parole during the minimum mandatory sentence. Subsection (3) of the statute provided what this Court described as "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." 395 So. 2d at 517. The appellees in Benitez challenged the statute, alleging that subsection (3) "usurps the sentencing function from the judiciary and assigns it to the executive branch, since the benefits of subsection (3) are triggered by the initiative of the state attorney." Id. at 519. In rejecting this argument, the Court noted that, under the statute, the ultimate decision regarding sentencing resided with the judge, who must rule on the motion for reduction or suspension of sentence, citing People v. Eason, 40 N.Y.2d 297, 353 N.E.2d 587, 589, 386 N.Y.S.2d 673 (N.Y. 1976)(upholding a similar statute against a separation of powers challenge, observing that the statute before it served "only to limit the sentencing options available to the judiciary as do, of course, all statutes prescribing the limits of the penal sanction to be imposed for any given offense").