Sunday, February 17, 2019
As reported in this local article, headlined "Norfolk judges unite to block prosecutor from dropping marijuana cases," a fascinating tussle has broken out as an elected prosecutor tries to move away from criminally prosecuting marijuana offenders. Here are the details:
The judges on the city’s top court have decided to block Norfolk’s chief prosecutor from essentially decriminalizing marijuana possession, a setback he’s thinking about appealing to the state Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, prosecutors under Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood went to court for at least the third time to try to drop or dismiss misdemeanor marijuana charges. Prosecuting people for having marijuana disproportionately hurts black people and does little to protect public safety, he’s said.
For the third time, a judge rebuffed them, and told prosecutors she’s not alone, but joined by her seven colleagues. “We are of one mind on this,” Circuit Judge Mary Jane Hall said.
The decisions adds to the confusion about whether it’s OK to have a small amount of weed in the city. Norfolk police have said they will continue to cite people for misdemeanor marijuana possession as they’ve always done. Circuit Court judges appear determined to make sure offenders are tried, even if the commonwealth’s attorney refuses to prosecute them....
In 2016 and 2017, more than 1,560 people have been charged with first- or second-offense marijuana possession, prosecutor Ramin Fatehi told the judge in court Tuesday. Of them, 81 percent were black in a city that’s 47 percent white and 42 percent black.
This “breeds a reluctance on the part of African Americans, particular young African American men, to trust or cooperate with the justice system,” according to a Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office memo announcing the policy changes. “Such prosecution also encourages the perception that the justice system is not focusing its attention on the legitimately dangerous crimes that regrettably are concentrated in these same communities.”
On Tuesday, Hall denied Fatehi’s motion to dismiss charges against Zemont Vaughan. The 24-year-old Norfolk man, who is black, had been convicted in a lower court in October, but on Tuesday, he went to the higher Circuit Court to appeal that conviction.
Prosecutors’ motions to dismiss or drop charges are typically formalities. They don’t generally like giving up on cases, so when they make what amounts to an admission of defeat, judges almost always grant them. Not this time.
Hall told Fatehi she and the other seven judges think the Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney is trespassing on the state legislature’s territory: making laws. The judge said Fatehi made an “extremely compelling case” with his statistics on racial disparities, but should pitch it to lawmakers in Richmond.
“I believe this is an attempt to usurp the power of the state legislature,” Hall said. “This is a decision that must be made by the General Assembly, not by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.”
Fatehi countered: Underwood is exercising the executive power voters gave him when they elected him the city’s top prosecutor. Part of the job is prosecutorial discretion, or deciding which laws should be enforced, especially since he has a limited amount of resources. In contrast to the misdemeanor possession charges, Underwood’s lawyers will keep prosecuting people accused of trafficking or dealing marijuana. “This is an exercise of our discretion,” Fatehi said.
Fatehi said Underwood is thinking about asking the state Supreme Court to reverse the judges’ decisions, adding that he’s “very close” to making a decision.
Lots can be said on the substance of the decisions being made by the city prosecutor and city judges in this case, but I will be content for now (1) to note that broad prosecutorial discretion in charging (and not charging) is the norm, and (2) to wonder aloud how prosecutions could or would move forward in these cases if city prosecutors refuse to be involved. And, finally, this story highlights yet again how disparate marijuana enforcement seems to be everywhere and how interesting legal issues surrounds all kinds of modern marijuana reform efforts.