Thursday, March 12, 2015
The Washington Post's Wonkblog has this lengthy new piece detailed the array of distinct lawsuits brought recently by opponents of Colorado's marijuana reforms. The article, headlined "After losing at the ballot box, marijuana opponents make a hail mary pass to the courts," is worthy a full read, and here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:
After losing at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion, marijuana opponents are turning to the federal judiciary in an attempt to halt the momentum of marijuana legalization efforts happening at the state level. But legal experts say that plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits brought against the state of Colorado for its marijuana regulation regime face slim chances of succeeding -- if the courts agree to hear them at all....
Most of the cases above are being financed by hardline anti-drug organizations that in recent years have found themselves well outside of the mainstream criminal justice debate.
The sheriffs' lawsuit, for instance, is bankrolled by the Drug Free America Foundation. Among other things, this group advocates for broadening mandatory drug tests for public school students. The Foundation arose from the ashes of "Straight, Incorporated," a coercive "drug rehabilitation" program for teens that faced numerous allegations of abuse and settled out of court to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars before closing its doors in 1993.
And the RICO cases are funded by the Safe Streets Alliance, a tough-on-crime organization that aims to increase prison sentences in an era of deep skepticism over the merits of lengthy prison terms. "This is the last hurrah for a lot of individuals in the anti-marijuana community," according to the Brookings Institution's John Hudak. "It's pretty clear that they’ve lost the battle for public opinion."
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
"Oklahoma Republicans Want To Snuff Out Their State's Lawsuit Over Colorado Marijuana" is the headline of this fascinating report from The Huffington Post (which Rebecca Pressman helpfully flagged in the comments to this post). Here are excerpts from the HuffPo piece:
Several Oklahoma lawmakers are calling for state Attorney General Scott Pruitt to drop his lawsuit against Colorado over its legalization of recreational marijuana, arguing that it's the "wrong way to deal with the issue."
In a letter sent to Pruitt's office last week, seven Republican state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Mike Ritze, expressed their concern that the case could significantly undermine states' rights, including Oklahoma's....
The Oklahoma lawmakers fear that a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court against Colorado -- lawsuits between states go directly to the high court -- could sweep far more broadly than cannabis laws. "If the federal government can force Colorado to criminalize marijuana," the letter reads, "using the exact same arguments, it could also force Oklahoma to criminalize a wide range of goods and activities that would be an anathema to the citizens of Oklahoma that we are sworn to serve."
The lawmakers argue that the best move would be for Pruitt's office to "quietly drop the action against Colorado, and if necessary, defend [Colorado's] right to set its own policies as we would hope other states would defend our right to govern ourselves."
Were the Supreme Court to rule against Colorado, Oklahoma lawmakers said they also have "deep concern" over the potential implications for the "national sovereignty of [the] entire country." They note that the lawsuit points to United Nations drug conventions that ban marijuana to strengthen its case -- an argument that the Oklahoma lawmakers said equates U.N. treaties with federal laws. "If the argument in the lawsuit were successful, the federal government could, in theory, adopt any UN treaty, then force the states, including Oklahoma, to help impose it," the letter reads.
The state lawmakers said that many of their constituents have already asked them to file a brief in defense of Colorado if the court hears the case -- not because these Oklahomans want legal access to recreational marijuana, but because they fear their state's rights would be "put in jeopardy."...
“This is not about marijuana at its core -- it is about the U.S. Constitution, the Tenth Amendment, and the right of states to govern themselves as they see fit,” said Rep. Ritze in a statement about the letter. "Our Founding Fathers intended the states to be laboratories of self-government, free to tinker and experiment with different ideas. The founders, from Jefferson to Madison, were also strong proponents of states nullifying unconstitutional federal actions. If the people of Colorado want to end prohibition of marijuana, while I may personally disagree with the decision, constitutionally speaking, they are entitled to do so."
Joining Ritze in signing the letter were Oklahoma state Reps. Lewis Moore, John Bennett, Mike Christian, Dan Fisher and state Sens. Ralph Shortey and Nathan Dahm, all Republicans.
The full letter is available at this link, and it makes for quite an interesting read.
Prior related posts:
- Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization
- Could (and should) Colorado (or others) respond to attack on marijuana legalization by counter-attacking federal prohibition?
- Lots of commentary on states SCOTUS suit against Colorado marijuana reform
Monday, October 20, 2014
A few years ago, an assistant principle at a Georgia middle school strip searched a twelve-year old boy in front of a few of his classmates, hoping to find marijuana. The school official did not find any marijuana and, I'm guessing, he is regretting having performed this sort of disturbing search.
The student now has a partial victory in a civil lawsuit, winning a summary judgment motion on one claim against the assistant principle (but losing on a failure to train claim against the school district.)
In an opinion dated September 30th (but just now appearing on my LEXIS alert), Judge Amy Totenberg (herself, coincidentally, a former school board lawyer) describes the facts in some detail. Unfortunately, the opinion does not appear to be available online yet.
D.H. was in his Language Arts class when Ratcliff came to the classroom and told him to bring his book bag and come with her.
Deputy Redding, McDowell, D.V., T.D., and R.C. were present in Deputy Redding's office when D.H. arrived with Ratcliff. (D.H. Dep. at 88-89.) Deputy Redding informed D.H. that drugs had been found at the school and he and McDowell wanted to know whether he had any drugs on him. (D.H. Dep. at 90.) D.H. denied having any drugs on him. (Id.) Redding asked him "are you sure because you are going to get searched," and D.H. responded that "yes," he was sure that he was not in possession of any drugs. (Id.)
McDowell informed D.H. that "because of the severity of the situation" he was going to have to search him "just to make sure" he did not have any drugs on him. (Id. at 114-115, 119.) McDowell then told D.H. to empty his book bag. (D.H. Dep. at 91.) McDowell looked through the pencil boxes, zippers, and pouches of D.H.'s book bag. (Id. at 92.)
Dowell then proceeded to search D.H.'s person. (D.H. Dep. at 92.) McDowell first told D.H. to take off his shoes. (Id. at 93; see also McDowell Dep. at 119 (stating that he asked D.H. to remove his shoes and socks).) Then he asked D.H. to empty his pockets. (D.H. Dep. at 94;see also McDowell Dep. at 119.) After D.H. emptied out his pockets, McDowell told him to take off his pants. (D.H. Dep. at 94; see also McDowell Dep. at 119 (stating that he asked D.H. to pull his pants down).) D.H. dropped his pants to the floor, stepped his legs out of them, and pushed them aside with his foot. (Id. at 95.) Underneath his pants, D.H. was wearing red and navy blue Tommy Hilfiger boxers — the kind with an elastic waist but that are loose around the thigh. (Id. at 94-95, 113.)
At some point, McDowell asked D.H. to remove his uniform polo-style shirt, which according to D.H. was the only shirt he was wearing that day. (D.H. Dep. at 99.) D.H. testified that he was not wearing an undershirt. (Id.) McDowell next told D.H. to flip his socks at the top to see if he was hiding anything under the band of the sock. (D.H. Dep. at 100.) McDowell then told D.H. to take off his socks. (D.H. Dep. at 100-101.) Finally, McDowell pointed at D.H.'s boxers and said "take those off." (D.H. Dep. at 102; see also McDowell Dep. at 120 (stating that he asked D.H. to "pull his underwear away from his body and in a down motion just in case if [sic] he had anything in his — on his person, it would fall to — fall to the ground").) D.H. asked McDowell "do I have to do this here," to which McDowell responded yes. (D.H. Dep. at 102.) D.H. complied by turning to the left (with his back to his classmates) and pulling his underwear down to his ankles. (D.H. Dep. at 103, 105, 107.) McDowell paused, bent over and observed D.H.'s genitalia. (D.H. Dep. at 108; McDowell Dep. at 120-121.) After  finding nothing hidden in D.H.'s underwear, McDowell asked him to put his clothes back on. (D.H. Dep. at 108; McDowell Dep. 120.) No marijuana or other illegal contraband was found on D.H. or in his belongings. (McDowell Dep. 124; Def.'s Resp. to PSMF ¶ 10.) Prior to requiring D.H. to strip down to his underwear to search him for marijuana, McDowell did not conduct a search of his locker, gym locker, desk, wastebasket, or classroom. (McDowell Dep. at 126-129.)
As Doug blogged about previously here, last month a Colorado bankrupcty judge dsimissed a Denver marijuana business owner's bankrupcty petition. The court reasonined that allowing the petition to go forward would put the bankrupcty trustee in the untenable position of administering assets that are being used to commit federal crimes.
As the story last month noted, the debtor was appealing the decision. And, late last week, the bankruptcy judge granted the debtor's request to stay enforcement of the court's judgment pending appeal. The decision does not seem to be available yet on the Colorado bankrupcty court's site (or, at least, it is not coming up in response to my searches.) But, it is on Lexis at 2014 Bankr. LEXIS 4409.
This development will essentially put everything on hold in the case until the appeals court has weighed in.
Here are a few excerpts from the court's opinion:
The Debtors' appeal raises important questions. As illustrated by this case, the intersection between the federal marijuana prohibition and state level liberalization of marijuana laws significantly complicates bankruptcy proceedings where those issues arise. For a trustee, taking custody of and administering assets that are used in the commission of a federal crime can involve a trustee in conduct that violates the federal criminal law. Because of those complications in this case, the Court found that bankruptcy relief was impossible to grant to these Debtors.
The policy of The United States Department of Justice, with respect to state citizens who are acting in compliance with liberalized state marijuana laws, is to initiate enforcement actions under the CSA primarily where overriding federal concerns are implicated. The same Department of Justice, through the United States Trustee (the "UST"), moved to dismiss these Debtors' bankruptcy case on account of conduct which does not appear to implicate the type of federal concerns that would typically lead a United States Attorney to initiate a criminal prosecution or other enforcement action under the CSA.
The Court finds that the balance of the harms favors granting the stay. In the Court's Dismissal Order, after hearing evidence at the trial of the UST's motion to dismiss, the Court recognized that the denial of bankruptcy relief would be "devastating" to the Debtors. (Dismissal Order at p. 9). Also, in its response to the Debtors' Motion, the UST has not alleged that the creditors would suffer any harm if the Court's Dismissal Order is stayed and the UST asserted that it does not oppose the stay. Given that the UST is statutorily tasked with supervising "the administration of cases and trustees in cases under chapter 7 . . . ," 28 U.S.C. 586, and is the party that sought dismissal of the Debtors' case in the first instance, his lack of opposition to the Debtors' Motion is significant to the Court. Thus, the balance of the harms strongly favors granting a stay pending appeal.
The Court also believes that the Debtors' appeal presents novel and substantial questions of law that will benefit from appellate review. As a consequence of these factors, the Debtors have raised at least some uncertainty as to the merits of their appeal.
Even though the Court cannot assess the Debtors' likelihood of success as being great, because the balance of the harms supports granting the stay, the UST does not oppose granting such relief, and the Debtors' appeal raises important legal issues, a stay of the Court's Dismissal Order pending appeal is appropriate in this case.
This appeal will certainly be worth watching closely.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Yesterday, the Second Circuit upheld a Board of Immigration decision finding a woman subject to removal from the US based on a since-vacated 1997 conviction for attempted possession of marijuana for sale. Though the decision does not break new legal ground, it is a reminder of the serious collateral consequences marijuana convictions can carry (and of the fact that under our immigration laws longtime residents can be forced back to countries they may now barely know based on relatively minor convictions.)
The court itself lamented the outcome, writing in its conclusion:
The sad truth of this case is that petitioner’s removability only came to light after she applied for citizenship. For almost seventeen years, she has owned and operated a business and by all accounts was a productive member of our society. Now, she will be returned to Jamaica and her community here will be the poorer for it. The Attorney General may, of course, review this matter in the exercise of his discretion in immigration matters. The petition for review is DISMISSED and any outstanding motions are DENIED as moot.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Courtesy of Rachel K. Gillette, Esq, here's the link to this morning's oral argument before the Colorado Supreme Court in Coats v. Dish Network. [Note-there's a 19 minute delay]. Here are the issues before the Court:
Whether the Lawful Activities Statute, C.R.S. section 24-34-402.5, protects employees from discretionary discharge for lawful use of medical marijuana outside the job where the use does not affect job performance.
Whether the Medical Marijuana Amendment makes the use of medical marijuana 'lawful' and confers a right to use medical marijuana to persons lawfully registered with the state
The Supreme Court is reviewing a 2-1 decision of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that the Lawful Activities statute requires the activity to be lawful under state and federal law.
Courtesy of Doug, here's a post explaining the facts and significance of the case.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
This new Denver Post article, headlined "Judge denies bankruptcy protection to Denver marijuana business," highlights another notable business problem created by the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Here are the basics:
A U.S. bankruptcy judge has dismissed the case of a Denver marijuana business owner, saying that although his activities are legal under Colorado law, he is violating the federal Controlled Substances Act. In dismissing the case, filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Denver by Frank Anthony Arenas, Judge Howard Tallman said he realizes the "result is devastating for the debtor."
The Arenas case is at least the second such one involving a marijuana business tossed out of bankruptcy court in Colorado. At least two others have been dismissed in California. Tallman made a similar decision in a 2012 case involving Rent-Rite Super Kegs West Ltd, a company that operated a warehouse partially rented to a tenant cultivating marijuana.
"Violations of federal law create significant impediments to the debtors' ability to seek relief from their debts under federal bankruptcy laws in a federal bankruptcy court," Tallman wrote in the Arenas decision last month.
Arenas, who couldn't be reached for comment, has appealed the decision to the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. According to his bankruptcy petition, Arenas owes more than $556,000 to unsecured creditors. He has assets of $595,925, personal property worth $47,191 and monthly income of $4,315.16. He has testified that he owns about 25 marijuana plants valued at $250 each, according to Tallman's decision.
Arenas, a wholesale producer and distributer of weed, filed for Chapter 7 protection, in which a debtor turns over assets to a trustee to liquidate and give the proceeds to creditors.
In the decision, Tallman alludes to the contradictions that dueling marijuana laws pose to liquidating assets and distributing the proceeds among creditors. The trustee can't take control of assets or liquidate the inventory without running afoul of federal law, he said. Nor can the debtors convert the case to Chapter 13, which would allow them to pay off debts over time because the plan would be funded "from profits of an ongoing criminal activity under federal law" and involve the trustee in distribution of funds derived from violation of the law.
Those who own and operate marijuana businesses are caught in a legal limbo with federal law restricting access to banking services and creating obstacles that other legitimate — at least by state law — businesses don't, said Sam Kamin, a professor at University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. "As long as it is illegal under federal law, we are going to have weird anomalies like that," Kamin said.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
The Gray Lady continues to do important reporting and advocacy concerning marijuana reform as evidenced by this recent article headlined "Legal Use of Marijuana Clashes With Job Rules." Here are excerpts from this piece:
Brandon Coats knew he was going to fail his drug test. Paralyzed in a car crash when he was 16, he had been using medical marijuana since 2009 to relieve the painful spasms that jolted his body. But he smoked mostly at night, and said marijuana had never hurt his performance answering customer calls for a Colorado satellite-television provider.... “There are a lot of people out there who need jobs, can do a good job, but in order for them to live their lives, they have to have this,” said Mr. Coats, who is 35. “A person can drink all night long, be totally hung over the next day and go to work and there’s no problem with it.”
But when it comes to marijuana, Mr. Coats and other users are discovering that marijuana’s recent strides toward the legal and cultural mainstream are running aground at the office. Even as 23 states allow medical or recreational marijuana, employment experts say that most businesses are keeping their drug-free policies. The result is a clash between a culture that increasingly accepts marijuana and companies that will fire employees who use it....
Employers and business groups say the screenings identify drug-abusing workers, create a safer workplace, lower their insurance costs and, in some cases, are required by law. But marijuana advocates say the prohibitions amount to discrimination, either against people using marijuana to treat a medical condition or against people who smoke it because they simply have the legal right to do so, off the clock and away from the office. “It wasn’t like I was getting high on the job,” Mr. Coats said. “I would smoke right before I go to bed, and that little bit would help me get through my days.”
On Sept. 30, he will take that argument before the Colorado Supreme Court in a lawsuit challenging his 2010 firing. For years, courts in Colorado and across the country have ruled against marijuana users, saying that companies have the right to create their own drug policies. But legal experts say that if Mr. Coats prevails — he lost 2-1 in an appellate ruling — his case could transform how businesses must treat marijuana users.
Relatedly, the NYTimes had this editorial headlined "Obsolete Zero Tolerance on Pot."
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Although California passed the first modern medical marijuana law in 1996 and saw the first wave of medical marijuana dispensaries, the legal status of dispensaries in the state is still somewhat unsettled. While government officials in places like Oakland have backed large scale retail outlets, in other parts of the state a handful of District Attorney's offices have argued that retail marijuana stores are illegal under state law. San Diego, where I live, has arguably been ground zero for this view--with one Deputy District Attorney going so far as to write a lengthy law review article (PDF) on why medical marijuana sales are actually illegal under California law.
For the most part, appellate courts have held that retail medical marijuana outlets are permitted under California law (though the state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.) Last week saw another decision reaffirming the legality of retail medical marijuana sales in CA v. Baniana (PDF).
Here are a few relevant excerpts:
[California's Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA)] permits qualified patients and their designated primary caregivers to join together “in order collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes” without being subject to “state criminal sanctions under Section 11357, 11358, 11359, 11360, 11366, 11366.5, or 11570.” (§ 11362.775.)
In 2010, the Legislature added section 11362.768 to the MMPA. (Stats. 2010, ch. 603, § 1.) This section implicitly recognizes the lawfulness of a “marijuana cooperative, collective, dispensary, operator, establishment or provider who possesses, cultivates, or distributes medical marijuana pursuant to” the MMPA, but prohibits such entities from operating “within a 600-foot radius of a school.” (§ 11362.768, subd. (b).) “This section shall apply only to a medical marijuana cooperative, collective, dispensary, operator, establishment, or provider that is authorized by law to possess, cultivate, or distribute medical marijuana and that has a storefront or mobile retail outlet which ordinarily requires a local business license.” (§ 11362.768, subd. (e).)
The prosecutor argued defendant was not entitled to the defense because the MMPA did not legalize the sale of medical marijuana. He asserted that while it may be lawful for a qualified patient unable to take part in the actual tending to the plants, or to devote time and effort on behalf of Herbal Run, to support the organization strictly through monetary contributions, the prosecutor argued any monetary contribution could not be contemporaneous with an exchange of marijuana. According to the prosecutor, such an individual would have to make his or her monetary contribution prior to the planting of the marijuana the patient would eventually be given.
The MMPA does not impose this limitation on qualified patients. First, the purpose of the MMPA is to ensure the promise of the CUA is fulfilled and qualified patients have safe access to affordable medical marijuana. We do not think the Legislature intended a seriously ill individual whose physician has recommended use of medical marijuana, and who is physically or otherwise unable to participate in the acts involved in cultivating medical marijuana, cannot simply pay money to his or her collective in exchange for the recommended medicine. It would be cruel for those whose need for medical marijuana is the most dire to require that they devote their limited strength and efforts to the actual cultivation of the marijuana, and then wait months for it to grow so they can use it, or to require that they make their monetary contribution and then wait months for the marijuana to be planted, grown, and harvested before they may lawfully be provided medical marijuana. Moreover, for some the cultivation and processing would not be completed until it was too late to provide any relief. The MMPA does not anticipate a patient who has received a physician’s recommendation must thereafter wait months to lawfully acquire medical marijuana.
Of course, the MMPA did not make lawful all sales of marijuana. The defense it provides is limited to those qualified patients and primary caregivers who associate together in a collective or cooperative. (§ 11362.775.) Additionally, sales for profit remain illegal. However, given the MMPA’s purpose, one provision in the MMPA implicitly recognizes the legality of store front dispensaries, collectives or cooperatives (§ 11362.768), and another provision specifically provides a defense to violation of sections 11360 (sale or transportation of marijuana) and 11359 (possession of marijuana for sale), we conclude a member of a collective or cooperative may purchase medical marijuana from the collective or cooperative so long as the sale is not for profit. The district attorney’s limited interpretation of section 11362.775 defeats the stated purpose of the MMPA to make access to medical marijuana easier for patients, and is contrary to a fair reading of the section. Section 11362.775 was written to provide a defense to a charge of selling marijuana in appropriate circumstances. Were this not the Legislature’s intent, there would have been no need to list section 11360 or section 11366 [opening or maintaining a place for the purpose of selling or giving away marijuana] as statutes to which the defense applies.
It is getting harder and harder for recalcitrant prosecutors to argue that California law does not permit retail medical marijuana dispensaries. But, as this opinion suggests, there are still other ways that California's horribly vague law can be a trap for the unwary in the hands of a drug war-style prosecutor. The particulars of the non-profit operation requirement remain almost entirely unclear, for example. A Los Angeles-area appellate decision from the spring highlights some of the problems. (Frankly, I think the "collective and cooperative" statute would almost certainly be found unconstitutionally vague if it were not for the fact that a vagueness holding would presumably mean striking down the defense entirely, which would obviously be of no help to defendants. I'm fairly certain this is why the issue is never raised in these cases.)
This recent holding is good news for medical marijuana advocates in California. But unless and until the legislature gets their act together and passes comprehensive statewide regulations, a steady stream of appeals attempting to make sense of the mess in place now will almost surely continue.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
As reported in this Boston Globe article, the Massachusetts "Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday said that because voters decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in 2008, police officers in Massachusetts can no longer rely on the odor of unburnt marijuana to justify searching a person’s car." Here is more:
In two unanimous rulings, the state’s highest court said they had already decided in 2011 that the odor of smoked marijuana by itself did not provide police with probable cause to stop people on the street or search the vehicles people are riding in.
The court said in its 2011 ruling that it would be legally inconsistent to allow police to make warrantless searches after they smell burning marijuana when citizens had decided through a statewide referendum question that law enforcement should “focus their attention elsewhere."
The court said Wednesday it was now extending the same reasoning to cases where the owner has not yet started smoking it. Marijuana, the court acknowledged, generates a pungent aroma, but an odor by itself does not allow police to determine whether a person has more than an ounce with them. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is not a crime.
“The 2008 initiative decriminalized possession of one ounce or less of marijuana under State law, and accordingly removed police authority to arrest individuals for civil violations," Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the unanimous court.
“We have held that the odor of burnt marijuana alone cannot support probable cause to search a vehicle without a warrant ... [now] we hold that such odor [of unburnt marijuana], standing alone, does not provide probable cause to search an automobile."...
The court also rejected the argument from law enforcement that local police can use the odor of marijuana to stop someone because possession of marijuana is still an offense under federal law. “The fact that such conduct is technically subject to a Federal prohibition does not provide an independent justification for a warrantless search," Lenk wrote.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
The federal government has been taking a hands-off approach in Colorado (at least, so far). If that ever changes, however, Colorado operators are sure to be facing lengthy sentences. A recent case from the Eighth Circuit serves as a good reminder of this fact.
In the case, an Iowa man named Robert Meeks participated in a marijuana growing operation that netted between 300 and 500 marijuana plants annually. He was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture 1,000 or more marijuana plants. To make matters worse for Meeks, in 1987 he was convicted of aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine. As a result, Meeks was subject to a 20 year mandatory minimum sentence.
On appeal, Meeks argued (among other things) that the sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Not surprisingly for those familiar with the caselaw in this area, the appeals court rejected that argument:
The district court sentenced Meeks to the mandatory minimum sentence of 240 months’ imprisonment. This sentence was based on the jury’s special finding that the conspiracy involved 1,000 or more marijuana plants and on the fact that Meeks had previously been convicted of a felony drug offense. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), 851. We repeatedly have held that applying a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses does not violate the Eighth Amendment. United States v. Garcia, 521 F.3d 898, 901 (8th Cir. 2008) (collecting cases). Meeks argues, however, that the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence is grossly disproportionate to the underlying crime because (1) the conspiracy involved the manufacture and sale of marijuana rather than “harder-core” substances, such as cocaine; (2) the prior drug conviction which qualified Meeks for the mandatory minimum occurred twenty-six years ago; (3) the sentence results in a near-life sentence given Meeks’s age; and (4) the profit from the growing and sales operation was negligible. None of these arguments demonstrates that Meeks’s case is the extreme case that violates the Eighth Amendment. See United States v. Burton, 894 F.2d 188, 190, 192 (6th Cir. 1990) (holding that marijuana’s Schedule I classification is not irrational, and thus the resulting penalties do not violate the Eighth Amendment); United States v. Fogarty, 692 F.2d 542, 547-48 (8th Cir. 1982) (holding that marijuana’s Schedule I classification is not irrational); United States v. Gallegos, 553 F. App’x 527, 532-33 (6th Cir. 2014) (holding that 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for conspiring to distribute at least 1,000 kilograms of marijuana did not violate the Eighth Amendment); United States v. Hoffman, 710 F.3d 1228, 1232-33 (11th Cir. 2013) (rejecting argument that life sentence based on convictions that occurred approximately twenty-five years earlier when defendant was a juvenile constituted cruel and unusual punishment); United States v. Mathison, 157 F.3d 541, 551 (8th Cir. 1998) (holding that a sentence “although in excess of a defendant’s life expectancy, does not violate the Eighth Amendment”); Ewing, 538 U.S. at 28-30 (holding that the defendant’s sentence of 25 years’ to life imprisonment was not unconstitutionally disproportionate where the defendant stole three golf clubs worth about $1,200 and was a recidivist). Accordingly, we conclude that a term of 240 months’ imprisonment, imposed for Meeks’s offense of felony drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(1)(A), is not “grossly disproportionate,” Ewing, 538 U.S. at 30, and we affirm his sentence.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Simple possession of marijuana is a federal crime. Only a very very very small fraction of marijuana possession cases end up in federal court (for example, in 2010, there were about 1,000 federal marijuana possession cases disposed of in federal court (PDF) and 750,000 simple marijuana arrests nationwide.) Compared to the number of people who use and smoke marijuana every year, the number of federal marijuana possession prosecutions is ridiculously small. About 25 million Americans use the drug every year. But only an unlucky 1,000 or so end up in federal court for possessing it.
Of course, even most of the marijuana simple possession defendants who end up in federal court are not facing very serious penalties--a first offense is a misdemeanor and carries no mandatory prison time.
But the cliffs and bright lines of the federal sentencing guidelines--even in their advisory state--can sometimes change the equation and result in real federal time for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Yesterday, in an unpublished decision (PDF), the Eleventh Circuit upheld a federal gun sentence that included an additional 20 months for possession of less than 2 grams of marijuana.
Here are the relevant details:
Jabriel Fitzgerald Lakes appeals his 58-month sentence, imposed after pleading guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). At the sentencing hearing, the district court enhanced Lakes’ base offense level by four points pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 2K2.1(b)(6)(B) because Lakes “used or possessed a firearm . . . in connection with another felony offense.” The district court found that, due to his prior drug convictions, Lakes’s possession of 1.8 grams of marijuana at the same time as his possession of a firearm constituted “another felony offense” under the language of 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). The court then imposed a 58-month sentence, which fell within the applicable guideline range of 57 to 71 months’ imprisonment.
Lakes appeals the application of the four-point enhancement to his base offense level as substantively unreasonable, arguing that the resulting sentence is unduly harsh given the circumstances of this case. Lakes argues that application of the enhancement “resulted in a grossly disproportional sentence in light of the actual amount of marijuana” in his possession at the time of arrest. While Lakes concedes in his brief that his prior drug convictions would render him ineligible to receive misdemeanor treatment on the marijuana charge under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(b)(4) and 844, he argues that an additional 20 months of imprisonment for possession of less than 2 grams of marijuana is patently unreasonable.
At his sentencing hearing, Lakes pointed out that his applicable guideline range which would have been 37 to 46 months without the enhancement, jumped to 57 to 71 months “for such a small amount of drugs.” As stated by his lawyer at sentencing: “As a practical matter I don’t know that you could cover up my thumbnail with 1.8 grams of marijuana . . . I am certainly not excusing any of this stuff, but it’s just a small amount that—and such a large enhancement, really, for such a small amount of drugs.” Lakes stated that he was holding the marijuana for a friend, and not for himself. Accordingly, he argued, the application of the enhancement does not serve the factors enumerated in § 3553(a).
After three prior drug convictions, Lakes was caught with a loaded firearm while in possession of three separate bags of marijuana, subjecting him to the four- level enhancement under the advisory guidelines. The record demonstrates that the district court considered the parties’ arguments, the presentence investigation report, the Guidelines and the § 3553(a) factors when it pronounced its sentence. The sentence is within, and at the low end of the applicable guideline range. It is also below the statutory maximum, further lending itself to a finding of reasonableness. Thus, Lakes has not met his burden of showing that the district court abused its discretion in applying the enhancement. We affirm the district court’s sentence as reasonable.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
On Monday, a New Mexico appeals court upheld an order requiring an employer (and its insurance company) to pay for an employee's medical marijuana. The decision involves a worker who was seriously injured on the job. The employer did not dispute the employee's eligiblity for worker's compensation generally, but objected to coverage of medical marijuana. In what, to my knowledge, is a first, the court held that medical marijuana is covered under the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act.
Here's an overview of the case, from the opinion's introduction (PDF):
We consider in this appeal whether, under the Workers' Compensation Act (theAct), NMSA 1978, §§ 52-1-1 to -70 (1929, as amended through 2013), an employer and insurer must reimburse an injured worker for medical marijuana used pursuant to the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act (Compassionate Use Act), NMSA 1978, §§ 26-2B-1 to -7 (2007). The workers' compensation judge (WCJ) found that Worker Gregory Vialpando was qualified to participate in the State of New Mexico Department of Health Medical Cannabis Program authorized by the Compassionate Use Act and that such treatment would be reasonable and necessary medical care. The WCJ ordered Worker to pay for medical marijuana through the program and Employer and Insurer Ben's Automotive Services and Redwood Fire & Casualty (collectively, Employer) to reimburse Worker. Employer appeals, arguing that (1) the WCJ erred because his order is illegal and unenforceable under federal law and also thereby contrary to public policy, and (2) the Act and regulations promulgated pursuant thereto do not recognize reimbursement for medical marijuana. Because we agree with the WCJ that the Act authorizes reimbursement for medical marijuana, we affirm.
The outcome is a bit of a surprise since it seems the employer is being ordered to commit a federal crime. The court's discussion on that point is perhaps the most interesting part of the opinion (though the whole thing is worth a read for those who follow marijuana law.) It seems that sloppy lawyering on the part of the employer/insurer may have played a role in the outcome. Though the employer raised the preemption issue generally, it apparently failed to cite to a specific federal statute it would be violating by paying for its employee's marijuana.
Employer does not attempt to challenge the legality of the Compassionate Use Act. Instead, Employer asserts that, because marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, the order to reimburse Worker for money spent purchasing a course of medical marijuana “essentially requires” Employer to commit a federal crime. However, Employer does not cite to any federal statute it would be forced to violate, and we will not search for such a statute. See Headley v. Morgan Mgmt. Corp., 2005-NMCA-045, ¶ 15, 137 N.M. 339, 110 P.3d 1076 (“We will not review unclear arguments, or guess at what [a party’s] arguments might be.”).
Also of note, the court's discussion of whether requiring an employer to pay for medical marijuana is at-odds with federal public policy:
Employer also argues that the order should be reversed because it is contrary to federal public policy as reflected in the CSA and Gonzales. Worker contends that federal public policy supports medical marijuana because the Department of Justice has announced a somewhat deferential enforcement policy. Although not dispositive, we note that the Department of Justice has recently offered what we view as equivocal statements about state laws allowing marijuana use for medical and even recreational purposes. On one hand, the Department of Justice affirmed that marijuana remains illegal under the CSA and that federal prosecutors will continue to aggressively enforce the statute. But, on the other hand, and in the same documents, the Department of Justice identified eight areas of enforcement priority and indicated that outside of those priorities it would generally defer to state and local authorities. In addition, the Department of Justice stated that it informed the Governors of Washington and Colorado, two states that voted to legalize possession of marijuana and regulate its production and distribution, that it would defer its right to challenge those laws. We also observe that New Mexico public policy is clear. Our State Legislature passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act “to allow the beneficial use of medical cannabis in a regulated system for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions and their medical treatments.” Section 26-2B-2. We decline to reverse the order on the basis of federal law or public policy.
I'm not sure how much precedential value the opinion has. If the employer's attorneys were more thorough, I don't think they would have had much trouble pointing to a federal statute that they would be forced to violate by paying for marijuana (21 USC 844, as an accomplice, comes to mind.) But, because the employer didn't highlight a specific statute, the Court of Appeal was able to side-step the issue. I suspect attorneys for employers/insurers in future cases will be careful not to make this same mistake.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Louisiana appeals court overturns life sentence for marijuana possession (though the defendant still faces a minimum 20-year sentence on remand)
Louisiana may be one of the harshest states when it comes to marijuana sentencing, but a recent case indicates there may be some limits even there.
Last week, a state appeals court overturned a life sentence for marijuana possession as excessive under state law. (The defendant's excessiveness argument arose under Louisiana law; he did not make an Eighth Amendment argument.) As a habitual felon, the defendant's marijuana possession conviction subjected him to a sentencing range of twenty years to life. Though the court of appeals struck down the life sentence, the defendant still faces a minimum of twenty years for his marijuana conviction (and may very well receive a much longer sentence on remand.)
Here is the heart of the court's decision (PDF):
While Defendant is a fifth-felony offender for sentencing purposes, and the trial court had discretion to impose a sentence between twenty years and life imprisonment, imposition of the maximum penalty within the sentencing range is excessive and disproportionate given the specific facts of this case. Defendant’s remaining conviction, possession of marijuana, second offense, is a relatively minor felony and only carries a penalty of a fine “not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than two thousand dollars, [or imprisonment] with or without hard labor for not more than five years, or both.” La.R.S. 40:966(E)(2)(a). Furthermore, most of Defendant’s past crimes involved non-violent, drug-related offenses. While he was convicted of aggravated second degree battery when incarcerated as well as attempted possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, these isolated incidents do not indicate an extensive predisposition to violence, and the violent or non-violent nature of these past crimes alone cannot be the deciding factor in an excessive-sentence determination. See State v. Johnson, 97-1906 (La. 3/4/98), 709 So.2d 672.
The imposition of a life sentence for such a small underlying crime also poses a much greater harm than good for society, as such a sentence will only fuel Louisiana’s incarceration epidemic and lead to unnecessary economic and social burdens on inmates and taxpayers alike. See State v. Jackson, 11-923 (La.App. 3 Cir. 6/6/12), 92 So.3d 1243, writ denied, 12-1540 (La. 1/18/13), 107 So.3d 626 (Thibodeaux, J., dissenting). While sentence enhancement deters recidivist tendencies and encourages rehabilitation, these goals become tarnished when offenses deserving of a mere slap on the wrist are instead subjected to a “lock-em-up and throw away the key” philosophy. If the applicable enhancement statute provides a range of sentences for the trial court to consider, then the maximum sentence of life without parole should not be levied unless carefully articulated findings and reasons for sentencing clearly justify its imposition.
North Dakota Supreme Court rejects the use of an out-of-state medical marijuana recommendation as a defense
North Dakota does not have a medical marijuana law (at least, not yet). But can someone with a medical marijuana recommendation from another state rely on that recommendation as a defense in North Dakota?
The North Dakota Supreme Court addressed the issue last week, holding that out-of-state medical marijuana recommendations are no defense to prosecutions in North Dakota.
Perhaps more interesting, the Court also considered whether evidence of an out-of-state recommendation can be introduced for the limited purpose of determining whether a defendant intended to distribute the marijuana she possessed. In other words, could a defendant charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute argue that her out-of-state recommendation is evidence that she possessed marijuana for her own use rather than to sell it?
The Court did answer this second question directly because of the procedural posture of the case (the defendants were appealing from a conditional guilty plea). The Court's decision seems to suggest, however, that a defendant with an out-of-state medical marijuana recommendation might be able to introduce evidence of it for purposes of determining whether she is guilty of possession with an intent to distribute or only of simple possession.
The most relevant portions of the Court's opinion follow:
Larson and Kuruc argue the district court abused its discretion by refusing to admit their respective medical marijuana prescriptions from the State of Washington as a lawful defense under North Dakota's Uniform Controlled Substances Act. The district court denied Larson and Kuruc's motions in limine to include the prescriptions as a defense.
Larson and Kuruc argue the possession of a controlled substance pursuant to a prescription or order is a valid defense. Under Washington law, their prescriptions allow each party to possess up to twenty-four ounces of usable cannabis and up to fifteen cannabis plants. The prescriptions were issued by a licensed neuropathic doctor in Washington. Larson and Kuruc seek to use the prescriptions to contend they were in lawful possession and as a defense against the charge of possession with intent to deliver.
North Dakota's Uniform Controlled Substances Act contains a prescription exception that allows a person to possess a controlled substance if "the substance was obtained directly from, or pursuant to, a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of the practitioner's professional practice . . . ." N.D.C.C. § 19-03.1-23(7). Under the exception, this Court has stated, "A defendant may not be charged with possession of a controlled substance if he has 'a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of the practitioner's professional practice.'"
A "valid prescription" is defined as "a prescription that is issued for a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional practice by a: (1) Practitioner who has conducted at least one in-person medical evaluation of the patient; or (2) Covering practitioner." N.D.C.C. § 19-03.1-22.4(1)(e); see alsoN.D.C.C. § 19-02.1-15.1(1)(f). A "practitioner" is defined as a "person licensed, registered, or otherwise permitted by the jurisdiction in which the individual is practicing to distribute, dispense, conduct research with respect to, or to administer a controlled substance in the course of professional practice or research." N.D.C.C. § 19-03.1-01(25)(a).
Construing the Uniform Controlled Substances Act as a whole, and harmonizing the prescription exception with the schedule I language, we conclude the plain language of the act does not provide for a medical marijuana prescription defense. Under the authority of N.D.C.C. § 19-03.1-02, the North Dakota Board of Pharmacy has determined that marijuana has a high potential for abuse, and no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or lacks accepted safety for use in treatment under medical supervision; this determination had been codified by the legislature. N.D.C.C. § 19-03.1-04. In this context, it does not logically follow that there could be a valid prescription for a substance that has no medical use or lacks accepted safety. We do not believe the legislature enacted the Uniform Controlled Substances Act to put North Dakota in the perplexing position where it must recognize out-of-state marijuana prescriptions even though the same exact prescription cannot be made legal for its own citizens.
Larson and Kuruc also argue that their medical marijuana prescriptions can be used as a defense to negate the government's claim that the amount of marijuana possessed evidenced an "intent to deliver." According to the arrest synopsis, Larson and Kuruc were arrested with approximately 12.8 ounces of marijuana. Their respective prescriptions allowed them each to possess up to twenty-four ounces of usable cannabis and up to fifteen cannabis plants in Washington. The district court determined that the jury "will not be instructed a prescription from the State of Washington is a valid defense to either possession with intent to deliver or simple possession. Whether the same evidence may be admissible for some other purpose is a different question, which will be considered as future developments warrant."
Rule 11(a)(2), N.D.R.Crim.P., states "a defendant may enter a conditional plea of guilty, reserving in writing the right to have an appellate court review an adverse determination of a specified pretrial motion." Here, the court left open whether the prescription could be used for some other purpose. We surmise "some other purpose" for allowing the prescription into evidence could be a factual defense to show an amount of marijuana intended for personal use and not for distribution. Although the lower court did not make an affirmative ruling, there is no indication that the court would have prohibited Larson and Kuruc from arguing to the fact-finder that the amount was commensurate with a prescribed personal use and not indicative of an intent to deliver.
Friday, May 2, 2014
Important new appeals court decision on California's medical marijuana law is very bad news for dispensary operators
As I've mentioned before, when it comes to dispensaries, California has a horribly vague medical marijuana law. The law says that patients and caregivers may associate in order to collectively or cooperatively cultivate marijuana but they may not do so for a profit. Courts have pretty uniformly held that this provision of the law permits retail medical marijuana dispensaries. But many of the particulars--like what it means to operate on a not-for-profit basis or whether an employee's criminal exposure should turn on the not-for-profit nature of the enterprise should impact the criminal (given that employees may have no idea how the enterprise is set-up)--remain laregely untested in court.
This week, a Los Angeles area appeals court issued an opinion addressing the collective cultivation law, and the result is not good news for medical marijuana operators and advocates. Indeed, this is one of the most restrictive interpretations of the law that I've seen in a published case. Though it pays lip service to precedent that says storefront dispensaries are allowed, its holding seems to leave most anyone involved in a dispensary open to criminal charges in California.
The decision should also serve as a reminder to attorneys who advise dispensaries in California of the need to be clear about the legal risks with clients (in this case, it appears that an attorney had led the defendant to believe that the operation was in compliance with California's law.)
The defendant was an employee and patient of a medical marijuana dispensary (that was operated by a for-profit company), getting paid between $50,000 - $60,000 annually for growing marijuana. The defendant and the collective had received advice from a private attorney, who seems to have advised that the arrangement was legal. The trial court precluded his medical marijuana defense, a decision affirmed by the court of appeal.
Here are some of the key parts of the opinion (PDF) (though anyone practicing in this area of law in California will want to read the whole thing):
Defendant, Brian Edward Mitchell, appeals after he was convicted of marijuana cultivation. (Health & Saf. Code,1 § 11358.) . . . Defendant entered into two written agreements to grow marijuana every month and sell it to a for-profit corporation that operated a collective of which he was a member. Defendant anticipated being paid $50,000 to $60,000 annually for marijuana delivered to the for-profit corporation. Under these circumstances, defendant may not secure the immunity provided by section 11362.775 [the "collective cultivation" law that I mentioned above--AK.]
In 2002, defendant fractured his spine and was constantly in pain. On September 21, 2007, defendant visited Dr. Wesley Albert. Dr. Albert approved the use of marijuana for defendant’s symptoms.
On November 7, 2007, defendant executed a K.I.M. Membership Agreement [for the medical marijuana collective -- AK].
Mr. Conway testified defendant would regularly spend time at the Barham Boulevard establishment. Mr. Conway testified defendant helped with the collective. Mr. Conway described defendant’s activities at the collective: “Just help us with the cultivation, or that, you know, introductory grow classes.["]
Defendant and Mr. Conway began discussing growing marijuana for the collective. After reviewing the Attorney General’s marijuana guidelines, Mr. Conway and defendant agreed that it “seemed that the collective was in a need” of more marijuana for its membership. Defendant testified there was very limited space at the Barham Boulevard collective for growing marijuana.
As result, defendant met twice with an attorney, Stewart Richlin. Defendant paid money to Mr. Richlin who provided the following advice: “He informed me that in order to grow legally for my collective, there were some documents that I could fill out. There were some certain parameters that I . . . had to stay within, but he advised me
essentially . . . that I was cleared as a patient and a member of the collective to engage in this activity.” Defendant then secured a number of documents which he believed would allow him to lawfully grow marijuana.
On January 28, 2010, Officer Jorge Cervantes of the San Fernando Police Department arrived at the premises rented by defendant at 1933 First Street. Officer Cervantes went to the business in response to a citizen complaint indicating a possible break-in at the 1933 First Street address had occurred. The windows for the premises were covered with a “black plastic tarp-type” of material. Officer Cervantes saw a broken sectional door and glass. The sectional door had been forced open.
Inside the premises, the investigators found “man-made little make shift” rooms divided by tarps. Officer Cervantes saw numerous marijuana plants in various stages of growth in the different rooms.
[D]efendant arrived at the marijuana growing facility on January 28, 2010, after the police had arrived. Defendant presented his medical marijuana identification card and led the investigators throughout the area where marijuana was being grown. Defendant presented documents indicating he was cultivating marijuana for the collective. Defendant discussed the issue of compensation for growing the marijuana with Officer Cervantes. Defendant testified, “I told the officer that I had been advised that I was allowed to keep $50,000 for myself for my contributions to the collective garden.” Officer Cervantes described defendant’s statement about being compensated for growing marijuana, “He said that he was only allowed to keep $50,000 a year for his contributions to the medical marijuana dispensaries.” (Defendant denied saying he intended to sell marijuana to a dispensary.) Defendant described his plan, “The plan was to cultivate for my collective and to be compensated for my time.”
The other limited defense of consequence to our case created by the Medical Marijuana Program Act is section 11362.775 which states, “Qualified patients, persons with valid identification cards, and the designated primary caregivers of qualified patients and persons with identification cards, who associate within the State of California in order collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes, shall not solely on the basis of that fact be subject to state criminal sanctions under
Section . . . 11358 . . . .” (Italics added.) This defense is limited, as set forth in the highlighted language, to potential criminal liability based solely on the fact the accused engaged in the collective or cooperative marijuana cultivation. Defendant has not been convicted of any crime “solely because” of his collective or cooperative marijuana cultivation. Here, defendant operated, by himself, a sophisticated marijuana growing operation, for which he expected potentially to be paid $50,000 to $60,000 per year. Defendant expected to live off of the income from his marijuana growing venture and to be compensated for all of his expenses. The amount of marijuana he anticipated growing exceeded any quantity that would legally be for his personal medical use. There is no evidence he had any caregiver relationship with any other person in the collective. Defendant commenced his marijuana growing operations only after entering into two written notarized contracts prepared by an attorney with a for-profit corporation, Keeping It Medical. We are in accord with the argument of the Attorney General that defendant’s broad construction of section 11362.775 has no merit.
[D]efendant went beyond the limited immunized scope of collective or cooperative marijuana cultivation. He entered into two separate written notarized contracts to provide marijuana to the Keeping It Medical for-profit corporation. In return, he would be paid a sufficient amount of money so he would recoup his expenses and live off of the rest of the income. His two separate State Board of Equalization seller’s permits, one for a corporation, indicate he expected to earn $60,000 annually. And although not essential, defendant’s marijuana growing venture arose in the context of an absence of any caregiver relationship within the Keeping It Medical customer base and community.
And, of course, defendant’s corporation, Herbmetics, Inc., had no relationship with the K.I.M. Collective other than as a supplier of marijuana.
This case is different from People v. Urziceanu, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th at pages 785-786. In Urziceanu, the defendant was convicted of conspiracy to sell marijuana. (Id. at p. 758.) There was evidence the defendant operated a collective, FloraCare, out of his home. (Id. at pp. 759-765.) The jury was not instructed on section 11362.775. The Court of Appeal held that the jury should have been so instructed. (Id. at p. 785-786.)
In Urziceanu, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th, the only charge upon which a retrial was ordered was conspiracy to sell marijuana. Section 11362.775 prohibits conviction for cultivation based solely on the fact the accused collectively or cooperatively cultivated marijuana for medical purposes. Conspiracy involves matters such as common design, plan or agreement. (See People v. Robinson (1954) 43 Cal.2d 132, 136; see 1 Witkin & Epstein, Cal. Criminal Law 4th ed. 2012) Elements, § 80, p. 375.) The collective action and cooperation elements of section 11362.775 involved a similar type of agreement or conduct covered by the conspiracy to sell marijuana charge in Urziceanu. As noted, the present case does not involve a conspiracy charge; merely marijuana cultivation. Here, defendant was not convicted based on collective or cooperative action by itself. Section 11362.775 has nothing to do with our case. Hence, there is no merit to defendant’s argument his marijuana cultivation conviction must be reversed because his actions were protected from criminal liability by section 11362.775.
Earlier this week, a federal District Court in North Carolina rejected the habeas petition of a man who was sentenced to consecutive terms of 101-131 months (roughly 16 - 22 years) for his role in arranging the sale of $20 worth of marijuana. The petitioner, Robin Eugene Land, argued the sentence was cruel and unusual and that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Land's lengthy sentence was tied to North Carolina's habitual felon statute but the opinion doesn't appear to shed light on what his prior offenses were (neither, from a brief review, does the state appeals court's decision on direct review.)
In any event, whatever his prior record, Land will be spending the next 16 to 22 years in prison for arranging (not selling but arranging) a marijuana sale. Oh, and the whole thing began with an undercover cop driving around asking for people to help him find marijuana.
Here are the facts from this depressing case (PDF):
The State’s evidence tended to show the following facts. On the evening of 14 August 2009, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Andrew A. Demaioribus was working as part of a team targeting street-level narcotic sales by conducting undercover buy operations on Charlotte city streets. While working undercover, Officer Demaioribus wore plain clothes and drove alone in an unmarked car. Additional police units stayed within two blocks of Officer Demaioribus’ location to provide assistance in the event that Officer Demaioribus' safety was compromised.
At about 11:25 p.m., Officer Demaioribus observed defendant in front of a residence. Officer Demaioribus pulled over and asked defendant if defendant could help him “get some green,” to which defendant replied, “Yeah. I can get you some.” Defendant then got into Officer Demaioribus’ vehicle. Defendant instructed Officer Demaioribus to drive to several residences in the area in search of marijuana.
Before defendant left the car at the first residence, Officer Demaioribus handed defendant a $20 bill. Defendant was unable to locate marijuana at the first few residences. When they arrived at the last location, defendant got out of the car, walked out of sight, and returned after one or two minutes. In defendant’s absence, Officer Demaioribus relayed his location to other officers using a cell phone. When defendant got back into the car, Officer Demaioribus asked, “Have you got my stuff?” Defendant replied, “Yeah. I got your shit. I got it.” Defendant then handed Officer Demaioribus two baggies containing a green substance that Officer Demaioribus thought was marijuana.
After the transaction was complete, Officer Demaioribus gave a “take down signal” to inform other officers that defendant should be arrested. Defendant instructed Officer Demaioribus to drive him to a nearby store. Officer Demaioribus dropped defendant off in the store's parking lot and immediately radioed to a supporting officer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Derek E. Rud, to provide a description of defendant. Officer Rud pulled into the store’s parking lot and arrested defendant. Although he searched defendant pursuant to the arrest, Officer Rud did not locate the $20 bill Officer Demaioribus had given defendant. Subsequently, chemical analysis indicated that the substance in the baggies was 2.03 grams of marijuana.
On 24 August 2009, defendant was indicted for possession with intent to sell or deliver marijuana and for delivering cocaine. Defendant was additionally indicted for selling marijuana. Subsequently, on 2 November 2009, the State obtained a superseding indictment charging defendant with delivering marijuana. In addition, defendant was indicted for being a habitual felon.
Thursday, May 1, 2014
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit released an interesting opinion considering the federal "unlawful user" statute. The unlawful user law makes it a crime for anyone who "is an unlawful user of and addicted to a constrolled substance" to possess a firearm--and yes, that includes marijuana.
A while back, the Fourth Circuit sent a case back to the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on whether this law runs afoul of the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment jurisprudence. The trial court found that making it a crime for a marijuana user to possess a gun did not pose any Second Amendment problem. Yesterday, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit agreed.
Here are a few excerpts from the opinion (PDF), by Judge Niemeyer, that provide an overview of the court's reasoning:
Carter argues that the district court, in concluding that the government carried its burden, erred in two respects: (1) it improperly relied on factors other than empirical evidence in evaluating the soundness of § 922(g)(3); and (2) it failed to recognize that the studies submitted by the government were inadequate because they related to drug use generally rather than marijuana use specifically and they failed to prove a causal link between marijuana use and violence. He maintains that the studies he submitted demonstrate that, in fact, “marijuana users are not prone to violent behavior.”
Focusing on the substance of the studies presented by the government to the district court, Carter contends that the data were inadequate because they related to drug use generally rather than marijuana use specifically and because they failed to prove a causal relationship between marijuana use and violence. He maintains that the studies he submitted, by contrast, demonstrated that “marijuana users are not prone to violent behavior.”
We have little trouble concluding that the studies presented to the district court by both the government and Carter indicate a strong link between drug use and violence. A study by Carrie Oser and colleagues, offered by the government, found that probationers who had perpetrated violence in the past were significantly more likely to have used a host of drugs -- marijuana, hallucinogens, sedatives, and heroin -- than probationers who had never been involved in a violent episode. [The Court went on to cite a few additional studies.)
Carter seeks to marginalize these studies, arguing first that they are too broad and discuss only “general categories of offenders, including those who abuse a range of controlled substances.” He contends that, even if there is a link between “harder” controlled substances and violence, the government’s evidence does not indicate that marijuana users are prone to violence. To the contrary, he claims that the evidence he submitted disproves such a link. Yet, even if such a particularized demonstration is necessary -- an issue we need not reach -- the studies presented by the government amply demonstrate a connection between marijuana use specifically and violence. The Harrison and Gfroerer study, for instance, found that, “[e]ven after controlling for other variables[,] such as age, race, income, education, and marital status, . . . using marijuana in the past year . . . [was] significantly related to criminal behavior.”
Carter also objects to the government’s evidence on the grounds that it demonstrated, at most, a correlation between marijuana use and violence and not a causal relationship. Quoting the Wei study, he argues that “[t]he relationship between marijuana use and violence ‘is due to the selection effects whereby these behaviors tend to co-occur in certain individuals, not because one behavior causes the other.’” (Emphasis added) (quoting Wei et al., Teasing Apart, at 166).
This argument is flawed, however, because it assumes, incorrectly, that Congress may not regulate based on correlational evidence. We conclude that it may and that the government need not prove a causal link between drug use and violence in order to carry its burden of demonstrating that there is a reasonable fit between § 922(g)(3) and an important government objective. . . . We have emphasized that, under intermediate scrutiny, the fit between the regulation and the harm need only be reasonable, not perfect. Carter I, 669 F.3d at 417. The correlational evidence put forward by the parties in the present case easily clears that bar.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Federal appeals Judge cites shifting views on marijuana to question mandatory minimum marijuana prosecutions
Earlier this week, in a dissenting opinion, Eighth Circuit Judge Myron Birght raised the question of whether it makes sense for the federal government to pursue mandatory minimum sentences in marijuana cases in a world where a large number of people think the drug should be legal. The legal quesiton in the case (PDF) involved application of the aggravating role enhancement for managers of drug opertions and may be of interest to those who follow federal sentencing law. Judge Bright's comments on marijuana policy follow:
I add an observation. In today’s world where several states in this country have legalized marijuana use for medical purposes and two states have even legalized its recreational use, a hard look should apply to marijuana prosecutions carrying mandatory minimum sentences as in this case. United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. has concluded that a new approach must be taken in federal sentencing and that we must ensure that our criminal justice system is “[t]argeting the most serious offenses” and “prosecuting the most dangerous criminals.” . . . Randy Irlmeier’s conduct is not a “most serious” offense nor is he a “most dangerous” criminal. A five-year mandatory minimum sentence for his crime is far too long. I would remand to the district court to apply the safety valve and resentence Randy Irlmeier accordingly.
Monday, April 28, 2014
Because possessing marijuana is a crime, its scent can provide the police with probable cause to search your car or to get a warrant for your home. Though I'm sure most police officers honestly report the facts of their searches, I'm equally sure that there are some bad actors who justify bad searches by falsely testifying that they smelled marijuana. It is very difficult for courts to pick the liars out from the truth tellers and so it is rare to see a decision dismissing an officer's claim to have smelled marijuana.
Last week, however, a federal trial judge in Massachusetts found an officer's marijuana smell story implausible enough to hold against the government (PDF):
An odor of marijuana is often sufficient to justify the warrantless search of an automobile. See Staula, 80 F.3d at 602 (“The case law is consentient that when a law enforcement officer detects the odor of marijuana emanating from a confined area, such as the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle, that olfactory evidence furnishes the officer with probable cause to conduct a search of the confined area.”). I suspect that not only lawyers and judges know this, but police officers do, too.
After hearing the testimony of Trooper Morris, I do not credit his testimony that he “detected a faint odor of ... raw marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle.” (Tr. at 18.) Trooper Morris’s testimony is telling as to his true reason for searching the car.
Q. After searching the vehicle and not finding any marijuana, did you remain suspicious?
A. I did.
Q. Why is that?
A. Based on the inconsistencies in their story. And I was concerned that there were -- there was something in the car that I was missing or I wasn’t finding.
Q. And you remained concerned because you could still detect the odor?
A. Not just the odor, just -- like I said, their story was -- their stories weren’t consistent; they didn’t sort of make sense; they weren’t reasonable. So I believed there was something hidden in the car.Perhaps Trooper Morris thought he smelled a faint odor of raw marijuana; perhaps the wish was father to the thought. On the evidence, I am not persuaded there was such an odor, and the government has failed in its burden on that factual issue.