Challenge Mounted to Drug Free School Zone Prosecutions in Tennessee

Could a drug case pending in Knox County successfully bring a constitutional challenge to Tennessee's Drug Free School Zone Act? The Act and similar acts in other states were passed in an effort to curtail drug activity in areas close to school zones, but have met much criticism for encompassing excessively large geographic areas beyond any school grounds. For example, a study of a similar statute in Connecticut showed that virtually all of the city of New Haven fell into a school zone area, as mentioned in a recent City Paper article. The Act often dramatically increases the actual sentence served by increasing the offense level and limiting parole eligibility. For example, a defendant without any prior criminal history convicted of selling half a gram of cocaine (less than half of the equivalent of a pack of sugar for coffee) in a non-school zone area could be sentenced to as little as eight years of probation with no jail time. The same defendant convicted under the Drug Free School Zone Act faces a minimum punishment of fifteen years in prison without the possibility of parole.

There have been recent multi-state studies indicating that drug free school zones may not very effective in reducing drug traffic or protecting school children, and instead have a negative impact on racial disparity. A case currently pending in Knox County, State v. McDaniel, seeks to raise this issues and challenge the Act on equal protection grounds, i.e., that drug free school zone laws violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection because the enhanced penalties are likely to apply to African Americans and other people of color who live in urban areas rather than whites who live in the suburbs. The McDaniel defendant's counsel claims that although only nine percent of Knoxville's population is African-American, 82% of the defendants stopped in drug-free school zones are.

Although this argument appears to be the first of its kind in Tennessee, similar arguments have been raised - and rejected - in New Jersey, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts and Ohio. Other cases have presented equal protection challenges that argue that drug-free school zones run afoul of equal protection by arbitrarily subjecting individuals in certain areas to stricter punishments than those outside of the drug free zone.

Defendants in other states have attempted Constitutional arguments other than equal protection. For example, a Washington state defendant presented a violation of due process defense on the grounds that the law does not require the state to prove that the defendant knowingly violated the law, i.e., that he knew that he was engaging in drug activities within a school zone. He contended that he had no way to know that he was within 1000 feet of a school zone, which in actuality was a high school equivalency class without an actual campus. This argument was rejected.

Because of the severity of the application of the law to enhance punishment, criminal defense lawyers will continue to challenge the statute or at least limit its application to its intended purpose.