Didn't Know Cocaine Was Illegal? That's No Excuse

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on February 27, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A ruddy-faced man was arrested for drug possession in Florida. His defense? He didn't know cocaine was illegal in the state of Florida. Whoops!

46-year-old Guy Lanchester told police "I don't understand... I thought cocaine wasn't illegal in Florida," South Florida's WTVJ reports.

Even if we suspend our judgment and choose to believe he was telling the truth, his ignorance would still be no defense. But what you may not know is that if he'd worded his ignorance differently, it may have been a valid defense.

Um, Cocaine Is Illegal

When officers arrived at the scene, they saw Lanchester get up from a seat and go behind a flower pot to hide his hands. When one officer approached him, he saw Lanchester fumbling with a small plastic bag filled with white powder, WTVJ reports.

As soon as the officer asked about the bag, Lanchester shoved the bag into the flower pot. He apparently opted for the "now you see it, now you don't" approach. Note: It doesn't work on cops.

After being taken into police custody, Lanchester said he didn't know cocaine was illegal in Florida.

Well, Lanchester, sorry to break it to you, but cocaine possession is very much illegal in Florida just like every other state in the U.S. Making matters worse, he worded his ignorance defense all wrong.

Mistake of Law v. Mistake of Fact

Generally speaking, a mistake of law -- a mistake involving the misunderstanding or incorrect application of law -- is not a valid defense to a crime. By contrast, a mistake of fact -- an unintentional misunderstanding about a fact -- is a valid criminal defense.

In this case, Lanchester said he didn't know cocaine was illegal in Florida. That's a mistake of law. But if he had said "Excuse me Officer, you mean this here bag of baby powder?" That would be a mistake of fact.

A lack of knowledge that the material was a controlled substance can function as a defense to a drug possession charge; not that the controlled substance is illegal.

Nice try, Lanchester.

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