Articles Tagged with ACLU

In April of 2010, Mr. Cornell had his home raided by police where 1/16th of an ounce of marijuana had been found – not enough to roll a joint. None of the potential jurors called for the case where willing to consider convicting someone for possessing a very small amount of marijuana.[1]

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November 16th 2010, Touray Cornell from Montana, breathed a sigh of relief and smiled as Judge “Dusty” Deschamps convened his court to report that out of all the potential jurors who had been called, not one would be willing to convict Mr. Cornell. Dumbfounded by the jurors’ decision, the District Attorney quickly spoke to Mr. Cornell’s defense counsel and an immediate plea deal was made. Mr. Cornell walked out free without admitting guilt and without probation.

Mr. Cornell witnessed the power of Jury Nullification, a show of citizen’s power through the legal system have a long and storied history in America. it is the power of Jury nullification and Mr. Cornell saw a version of that power first hand.

iStock_000011009457_ExtraSmall.jpgPresident Obama thinks marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and is less dangerous in terms of its impact on consumers. In a January 2014 interview with the New Yorker, the president compared marijuana to other vices such as alcohol and cigarettes, stating “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

While the president doesn’t find the use of marijuana alarming, he is very bothered by the fact that minorities, especially minority youth, have a radically disproportionate rate of arrest and imprisonment. “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said. “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties…we should not be locking up individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” A new study released this month supports the president’s concerns, finding that nearly half of all black males are arrested by the time they reach the age of 23.

What is even more surprising is that notoriously conservative Texas governor Rick Perry has also shown a recent liberalized attitude towards marijuana. Perry, speaking to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, defended Colorado and Washington state’s vote to legalize the drug, saying it is a matter of states’ rights. Although Perry sidestepped questions of whether he supported the decriminalization of marijuana, he promoted Texas’ drug courts, which offer treatment instead of incarceration for non-violent offenders, as an example to other states and nations.

The police shooting of a mentally ill Dallas man sent shockwaves across the country this week after a neighbor’s home surveillance system showed the man had been standing still when shot, contrary to what the offending officer stated. The Dallas Police Department reports that the officer, Cardan Spencer, and his partner were dispatched after the victim’s mother called police for help in dealing with her son, who suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. According to the arrest affidavit, Spencer shot Bennett after he walked toward him and his partner with a “knife raised in an aggressive manner”. However, the neighbor’s surveillance video, which has spread widely over the internet, proves the victim had not moved towards the officers at all when Spencer shot him down.

According to data compiled by Bloomberg News, 64 mentally-ill citizens died after being shot with a gun or electroshock device by law enforcement in 2012, about three times as many deaths as 2009. No officers in the 64 incidents were found criminally liable, leading many to question police accountability. Just last year, a Justice Department investigation based solely on violent police encounters with Portland, Oregon’s mentally ill found nine cases with a “pattern or practice of unreasonable force”, with gaps in mental health care increasing the frequency of potentially fatal police encounters.

“It is a shame that a bullet is what our mental health safety net has become,” said Louis Josephson, CEO of Riverbend Community Mental Health in New Hampshire. Since the mid-1950’s, the number of beds in state hospitals has decreased by 92%, with only 42,385 beds available in 2011. In addition, the average duration of acute-care psychiatric hospital stays is now a mere 7.8 days, 60% shorter than stays in 1993 and drastically shorter than the recommended two weeks mentally ill patients need for medications to stabilize.

iStock_000006746569XSmall.jpgBy their very title, the role of law enforcement officials has traditionally been limited to enforcing the laws handed down by our popularly elected officials. However, a letter jointly written by several national law enforcement agencies makes it clear that the majority of law enforcement agents feel they should be able to determine what policies and laws to follow. The letter, written in response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s August announcement that the federal government would not challenge laws passed by Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational marijuana, was signed by the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. “It is unacceptable that the Department of Justice did not consult our organizations — whose members will be directly impacted — for meaningful input ahead of this important decision,” the letter read. “Our organizations were given notice just thirty minutes before the official announcement was made public and were not given the adequate forum ahead of time to express our concerns with the Department’s conclusion on this matter. Simply ‘checking the box’ by alerting law enforcement officials right before a decision is announced is not enough and certainly does not show an understanding of the value the Federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partnerships bring to the Department of Justice and the public safety discussion.” Even though scientists have debunked the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug, the letter cited the gateway drug theory to oppose marijuana reform. Interestingly, the letter failed to address the fact that marijuana prohibition has not reduced marijuana usage among US residents, even while law enforcement has dramatically increased the number of jailed drug offenders.

One would think law enforcement officials would welcome eliminating a major revenue source for foreign and domestic organized criminals, however to the contrary, they have been staunch opponents of legalizing marijuana for personal or medicinal use because, while it remains contraband, marijuana is a major source of funding for law enforcement. Police departments are often able to keep a large portion of the assets they seize during drug raids, even if charges are never brought. And federal grants for drug war operations make up a sizable portion of local law enforcement funding. It is obvious that Law Enforcement has a financial incentive to maintain the “War on Drugs” and that they are willing to utilize unfounded data to support their anti-marijuana reform claims.

In addition, law enforcement officials seem to have entirely missed Holder’s emphasis on allowing Washington and Colorado a trial period during which the Justice Department will be very closely monitoring any negative effect to public safety, public health and other community interests. Coupled with Holder’s announcement was a memo issued to U.S. attorneys across the country by Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Cole’s letter stated that the administration’s decision rests on its expectation that the states would maintain strong and effective regulation and enforcement systems to address any threat to public safety and health.

iStock_000007992706XSmall.jpgA conservative political activist and mother, Jessica Peck, co-founded the Women’s Marijuana Movement (WMM), an organization dedicated to changing the harmful laws of marijuana prohibition. As a primary goal, the organization seeks to inform others that marijuana use is a much safer recreational activity than alcohol consumption. Members of WMM include parents driven in the conviction that marijuana reform will create a safer environment for their children and young professionals that have grown weary with a system that permits, and even encourages, dangerous use of alcohol but criminally punishes the comparatively less harmful usage of marijuana. Women are increasingly moving in favor of marijuana reform, overcoming a historical gender gap on the issue.

Historically, males have favored marijuana reform more so than females have. For example, in 2010, national Gallup poll revealed that 51 percent of males favored marijuana legalization while only 41 percent of females were in favor. Even in Marijuana-friendly states, in the recent past women have shown much less support, as seen by a 2011 poll of Washington State voters where 56 percent of males support legalization, but a significantly smaller 37 percent of females believed in marijuana legalization.

However, much of the gender gap has closed, if not disappeared, regarding marijuana reform support. A 2013 poll shows 48 percent of women nationally now support marijuana legalization, a notable increase from the 41 percent of support in 2010. Women’s support in favor of ending marijuana prohibition was pivotal to the marijuana legalization victories in Colorado and Washington State. In polls leading up to the Colorado vote to legalize, 49 percent of women voiced their support for Amendment 64. Confirming the drastic shift of marijuana views of women, exit polls of the Colorado marijuana vote showed 53 percent of women voters supported the legalization measure. This result was very different from the failed 2006 Colorado vote to legalize, where the majority of women voted in favor of maintaining marijuana prohibition. Joining Colorado’s 2012 marijuana victory, the majority of women voters in Washington State also voted favorably to legalize marijuana.

As the U.S. drastically changes the national health care system through the implementation of Obamacare, our neighbors to the north are also overhauling key aspects of their health care structure. In an attempt to move existing medical marijuana market from individual grower or total-government control into the hands of private enterprise, Canada recently launched a marijuana free market estimated to be worth $1.6 billon yearly. The new market will open the doors to legalized international marijuana trade since Canada will allow marijuana imports from countries like the Netherlands. The Canadian government will not directly interfere with prices of marijuana and the marijuana will be priced at whatever amount the market can bear. Initially, medical marijuana consumers will likely see a price bump in marijuana; however experts estimate that with time the marijuana prices will decline as a result of competition between marijuana businesses. In fact, medical marijuana under the new system is projected to fall to $3 a gram. Patients needing access to medical marijuana, even patients that were approved under Canada’s prior medical marijuana system, must have a medical professional prescribe medical marijuana to the patients through the use of a government-approved form. Canada hopes to be able to serve half a million patients by 2024.

Canada’s greater embrace of medical marijuana comes at a time of increasing support for medical marijuana across the world, especially from the U.S. One of the U.S.’s most trusted medical authorities, CNN’s chief medical expert, and past candidate for U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, has recently voiced strong support of medical marijuana. Dr. Gupta even apologized for being wrong regarding his past opposition to medical marijuana. Forty percent of U.S. states have passed medical marijuana laws, despite conflicts with federal law that classifies marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs with no medical benefits. The American Medical Association has supported a change to this federal classification to allow for better research into the medical properties of marijuana.

Canada’s move highlights the fact that the U.S. is the only major country in North America that has not reformed marijuana laws on a federal level. With Mexico’s federal government decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in 2009, Canada’s federal government legalizing medical marijuana in 2001 and now expanding the medical marijuana system, the U.S. federal government lags behind in terms of continent-wide reform.

iStock_000001725183XSmall.jpgThe state of Texas takes the welfare of its children very seriously. This principle is evident when the Texas Legislature created section 481.122 of the Health and Safety Code. This section deals with people who “deliver” marijuana to a child, which is a person under the age of 18 (or a person enrolled in a public or private primary or secondary school). Now, people often confuse “delivery” with “sale”. They are not the same thing. Delivery is the legal term for giving or handing off something; in this case, an adult passing a joint to a 17 year old boy. Obviously, a sale is a transaction involving an exchange of goods for money. An adult does not need to receive cash back from the child to get in trouble; he just simply needs to give the child marijuana. If an adult does this, then he could be guilty of a second degree felony.

However, there are certain exceptions to these rules. Please note that these defenses apply only to this offense. In other words, if you have an affirmative defense for this offense, it does not mean that you cannot be charged with other crimes. If the person delivering the marijuana was a child when the crime was committed, he cannot be charged with a second degree felony under this section. Moreover, this section also provides that if the person delivering marijuana is under the age of 21, delivers an amount equal to or less than 3.5 grams, and did not receive any cash for the delivery (it was not a sale), he could not be charged with a crime under this section. These affirmative defenses are mostly framed to protect reckless teenagers from facing serious charges. In other words, this section did not want to criminalize children in high school who were giving their friends weed (though that is still an offense).

The State of Texas demands adults to be responsible and not deliver marijuana to children. Whatever your stance on marijuana may be, it is undeniable that children need heroes in today’s society. A person’s stance on marijuana should begin with education. There is a big difference between being a drug pusher and a drug advocate, for the former can be a second degree felony.

iStock_000005273638XSmall.jpgIn early August, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new and immediately effective Justice Department policy that will reduce severe mandatory sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who are not associated with drug cartels, gangs or large-scale organizations. Speaking to the American Bar Association in San Francisco, Holder pointed out that though the U.S. is “coldly efficient in jailing criminals,” it “cannot prosecute or incarcerate its way [to becoming safer].”

The new Justice Department policy is part of a comprehensive prison reform package that includes policies to reduce sentences for nonviolent elderly inmates and seek alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Holder commented before going on to specifically question excessive imprisonment associated with our nation’s War on Drugs.

Although the U.S. is home to a mere 5% of the world’s population, our nation’s prisons hold almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. Since 1980, the federal prison population has increased by over 800% while the nation’s population has only grown by roughly one-third. Officials attributed most of that increase to mandatory minimum sentences for drugs imposed in the 1980’s at the outset of the so-called “War on Drugs”. For example, under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a minimum sentence of five years without parole was imposed for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while the same sentence was mandated for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, leading to higher levels of more severe incarceration in poorer communities. With more than 219,000 inmates in the federal prison system, the Justice Department has confirmed that prisons are operating at 40% over capacity. Of course, with the increase in mandatory minimum sentences, incarceration costs have skyrocketed, reaching over $80 billion in 2010. With almost half of federal inmates incarcerated for drug-related crimes, it is clear that our current drug policies are only adding unnecessary strain and expense to our taxpayers and justice system. Attorney General Holder was enthusiastic that the new Justice Department policies “will ultimately save our country billions of dollars.”

criminal background check.jpgThough whites and African-Americans reportedly use marijuana at similar rates, nationally, law enforcement officers are about 4 times more likely to arrest African-Americans. The ACLU report, which revealed this information, also found certain counties in Texas have disproportionate arrest records that are among the worst in the US. For example, officers in Van Zandt County are about 34 times more likely to arrest African-Americans for marijuana possession compared to the officers’ chances of arresting whites for possession. Numerous other Texas counties also arrest African-Americans for possession at rates ranging from 5 times higher to 20 times higher than arrests of whites for possession. In response to the ACLU report’s findings as they relate to Texas, ACLU executive director Terri Burke said “This data is clear evidence that police target blacks for marijuana use. And nowhere in Texas is this practice as prevalent as in a corridor stretching from Houston, up through East Texas, into the Dallas-Fort Worth area.” Shattering the notion that such disparate possession arrests are limited to Texas’ rural areas, the ACLU report revealed that Harris County ranks fourth in the US for the number of African-Americans arrested for possession.

Africans-Americans represent roughly 12% percent of the Texas population, but were targeted in over 25% of possession arrests in Texas as a whole. While this percentage (showing African-Americans are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested compared to whites) indicates disproportionate possession arrest rates of minorities in Texas is lower than the national average, understanding arrest reporting methods could explain further. Texas’ arrest reporting method does not count Hispanics separately from whites. The ACLU suspects the possession arrests of Hispanics is also disproportionality higher than whites, but cannot accurately analyze the data due to the reporting method. The ACLU further suspects, if the possession arrest records of whites alone could be analyzed, then the disparity between possession arrests of whites and minorities would be even worse than the ACLU report currently indicates.

Besides revealing racial inequality in law enforcement targeting in Texas, the ACLU report also informed readers on Texas’ wasteful policy of fighting the war on weed. The ACLU report showed that Texas has the second-highest number of possession arrests in the US. The ACLU report also discovered that possession arrests in Texas represent more than half of all drug arrests. This figure places Texas among the top states that waste the most resources and arrest the most people to enforce dubious marijuana policies. What is most striking about the report is that four decades of marijuana prohibition has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1 trillion. In 2010 alone, the enforcement of prohibition cost the U.S. about $3.6 billion. In that same year, Texas’ marijuana law enforcement cost Texas taxpayers about $126 million. Furthermore, in 2010, judicial and correctional costs related to marijuana law enforcement totaled $85 million and $40 million respectfully. Because marijuana prohibition has caused racially biased arrests and monumental wastes in government resources, the ALCU report concludes that the legalization of marijuana is the best way to combat the devastating effects of marijuana prohibition.

iStock_000009135835_ExtraSmall.jpgPossession of marijuana charges are serious situations. Even the lightest charge, which would be a class B misdemeanor for possessing 2 ounces or less, can still have staggering consequences.. The best way to avoid the consequences of a charge is to not commit the crime. However, no system is perfect, and today’s law enforcement and judicial system is exemplary of this principle. The ACLU just released a report that said that minorities were 400% more likely be arrested for a marijuana offense. Lead author of the report, Ezekiel Edwards, told the New York Times. “We found that in virtually every county in the country, police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner.”

The raw data behind the reports is staggering. Each state had different numbers, but New York State had the most possession of marijuana arrests in 2010 with more than 100,000 arrests. Id. While New York State ranked highest in arrests, the highest population arrest rate belonged to Washington D.C., with 846 arrests per 100,000 residents. Id. Iowa earned a special note as having the “the most egregious racial disparity… where black residents were eight times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related charge than whites.” Id.

Why should this concern you? The answer lies in the concept of constructive possession. Constructive possession means controlling a piece of property, including contraband, without physically holding it. For example, when we leave our car parked in a parking lot, we are still exerting constructive possession over it. Or when we leave our house locked and we go out for the night, we are still exercising constructive possession of the house. Constructive possession appears in drug cases usually when there is contraband found in a car during a traffic stop. For example, if an officer pulls a car over for speeding and notices marijuana in the backseat, the question is “who is exercising constructive possession of this contraband”?