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Chronicle AM: ME Poll Has 55% for Legalization, Indonesia Executing More Drug Prisoners, More... (5/13/16)

A new Maine poll has majority support for legalization, Indonesia is about to execute more drug war prisoners, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Maine Poll Has Support for Legalization at 55%. A new Critical Insights tracking poll finds solid majority support for marijuana legalization six months before Maine voters head to the polls to vote on the initiative from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. A question asking whether respondents whether they favored a law allowing marijuana to be "legalized, taxed, and regulated by adults 21 and over" got the 55%, but a second, more generic question, scored even higher at 59%. These poll results are similar to a March poll that had support for legalization at 54%.

International

Indonesia Gears Up to Execute More Than a Dozen Drug War Prisoners. Five nationals and 10 foreigners face imminent execution for drug crimes, according to local media accounts, lawyers, and activists. Last year, Indonesia attracted international condemnation for executing 12 foreigners and two Indonesians for drug crimes, but now the government of President Joko Widodo is doubling down.

Toronto Looks to Crack Down on Pot Shops. Mayor John Tory this week sent a letter to the municipal licensing committee looking for options to regulate the hundreds of pot shops that have opened in the city since the Liberals announced they were moving ahead with plans to legalize marijuana. Only two other Canadian cities, Vancouver and Victoria, both in British Columbia, have moved to regulate the dispensaries. "Left unaddressed, the number of these dispensaries will only increase," Tory wrote. "This proliferation brings with it potential health risks for individuals who patronize dispensaries where the substance for sale is completely unregulated."

Chronicle AM: Racial Disparities in CO Pot Arrests Persist, NH Decriminalization Moves, More... (5/11/16)

A new poll has good news for Florida's medical marijuana initiative, pot decriminalization is one Senate vote away in New Hampshire, and more. 

Marijuana Policy

Colorado Racial Disparities in Teen Marijuana Arrests Worsen After Legalization.  Teen marijuana arrests actually increased after legalization in Colorado, and so did racial disparities among those arrested, according to a new state report.  White juvenile arrests dropped by 8%, while Latino arrests increased by 29% and black arrests increased by 58%. Among adults, marijuana arrests have decreased by nearly half, but racial disparities among those arrested grew slightly worse. In 2012, black people got busted at a rate almost double that of whites; in 2014, the rate was almost triple.

Florida Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization, Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Quinnipiac University poll has support for pot legalization at 56% and support for medical marijuana at 80%. Legalization isn't on the immediate horizon in the Sunshine State, but a medical marijuana initiative will be on the November ballot. A similar initiative was defeated in 2012 with 58% of the vote; it needed 60% to win because it was a constitutional amendment.

New Hampshire House Passes Decriminalization Bill. The House Wednesday voted 289-58 to approve Senate Bill 498, which was amended in committee to include provisions that would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana.  The bill now goes back to the Senate for approval. 

International

Myanmar Opium Farmers Call for End to Eradication Until Alternatives are Found. The 4th Annual Myanmar Opium Farmers' Forum ended Monday with a call for recognition of the struggles of poppy farmers and no crop eradication without alternative development programs in place: "We grow opium because we are poor and do not have other livelihood opportunities to feed our families and send our children to school, as well as for medicinal and traditional uses. We are not involved in the drug trade, we are not criminals, and we are not commercial farmers. Some of us also grow it for traditional and medicinal uses. It is important to differentiate between small-holder farmers like us, and those people who grow opium commercially and/or who invest in it," the farmers said.  "The government should not carry out any force eradication of our opium fields unless and until they have provided access to sustainable crop substitution programmes and alternative livelihoods to our communities. Eradication should especially not take place during the harvest season. By that time we have already invested a lot and also cannot grow another crop anymore that season." Myanmar is the world's second leading producer of opium, behind Afghanistan. 

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Georgia cop gets nailed for running with the Gangster Disciples, a New Jersey cop gets busted for peddling pot, an Indiana cop gets popped for peddling pills, and more. Let's get to it:

In Atlanta, a former DeKalb County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Wednesday as part of a mass indictment of Gangster Disciples gang members. Deputy Vancito Gumbs is accused of tipping off gang members to police activity, including an October raid on a bar he knew a gang member frequented. The 48 people indicted are charged with a variety of offenses including murder, drug trafficking, extortion, and fraud.  Gumbs resigned from the department in October after he was reported to be using drugs.

In Linden, New Jersey, a Linden police sergeant was arrested last Thursday on charges he was peddling pot. Officer William Turbett III, 30, is charged with fourth-degree distribution of marijuana, as well as pot possession.  Turbett had already been suspended without pay for an unrelated matter. He's now looking at up to 18 months in prison.

In York, Pennsylvania, a York County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Friday on charges he stole drug money from the departmental evidence room. Sgt. Troy Senft is accused of pilfering $760. He is charged with theft, destroying evidence, tampering with evidence, obstruction, and receiving stolen property. He is out on his own recognizance.  The cash was set to be seized, but Senft seized it for himself.

In Indianapolis, a former Anderson police officer pleaded guilty last Wednesday to federal drug possession and distribution charges. Donald Jordan, 52, went down after a confidential informant told police he Jordan had approached him to sell marijuana, then provided him with hydrocodone tablets. That sparked an audit of the department evidence room, where pills and $5,000 in cash turned up missing. He copped to one count of possession with intent to distribute and to distribute Xanax, a Schedule IV controlled substance and one count of distribution and intent to distribute hydrocodone. He's looking at up to 15 years in federal prison. 

Obama's Effort to Free Drug War Prisoners Hits Bureaucratic Roadblocks [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

With the sentence commutations announced last week, President Barack Obama has now cut more than 300 harsh drug war prison sentences, more than the previous six presidents combined. Thousands more could be eligible for commutations, but bureaucratic obstacles inside the Justice Department mean the clock could run out before Obama gets a chance to free them.

Thousands could go free with sentence cuts this year -- if bottlenecks are fixed. (nacdp.org)
As part of the Obama administration's emphasis on criminal justice reform and reducing the federal prison population, then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Cole called on nonviolent federal drug war prisoners to seek clemency in April 2014.

"In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing unfair disparities in sentences imposed on people for offenses involving different forms of cocaine, but there are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime -- and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime," said Holder at the time. "This is simply not right."

Holder noted that Obama had granted commutation to eight people serving time for crack offenses the previous December.

"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety. The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," Holder said.

The mass clemency program is one of Eric Holder's sentencing reform legacies. (justice.gov)
Under Holder's criteria for clemency, low-level drug offenders who had served at least 10 years, had good conduct in prison, had no significant criminal history or connection to gangs, cartels, or organized crime, and who would probably receive a "substantially lower sentence" if convicted of the same offense today would be eligible for sentence cuts.

Of roughly 100,000 federal drug prisoners -- nearly half the entire federal prison population -- more than 36,000 applied for clemency. Many of them did not meet the criteria, but the Justice Department has reviewed nearly 9,500 that did. Of those, only the 306 have actually been granted clemency; applications are still pending for 9,115 more. (An additional 8,000 pending applications are being handled by a consortium of private attorneys, the Clemency Project.)

Many of those might not make it to Obama's desk before the clock runs out on his term because the Justice Department has stumbled in administering the program. Thousands of prisoners doing harsh drug war sentences could lose their chance for early freedom because Justice didn't get around to hiring enough people to handle the flood of applications it generated.

The situation so infuriated Office of Pardons attorney Deborah Leff, who was hired to oversee the project, that she quit earlier this year. Her resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates made it clear why.

Despite her "intense efforts" to do her job, Justice had "not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary ffor my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president," she wrote. "The position in which my office has been placed, asking us to address the petitions of nearly 10,000 individuals with so few attorneys and support staff, means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

It wasn't just that Justice wasn't adequately staffing the pardons office -- it had a total of 10 staff attorneys -- but Yates was overturning the pardon attorneys' recommendations and blocking the office's traditional access to the White House, Leff complained.

"I have been deeply troubled by the decision to deny the Pardon Attorney all access to the Office of the White House Counsel, even to share the reasons for our determinations in the increasing number of cases where you have reversed our recommendations," Leff wrote in her resignation letter to Yates.

US Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in frustration.
"It is essential that this groundbreaking effort move ahead expeditiously and expand," she wrote, implying that the Justice Department process was stalling justice.

The staffing problems had been apparent early on, which is why the Department turned to the Clemency Project to help out last year. But that effort, which involved some 4,000 attorneys from 30 law schools, 70 large law firms, and more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners doing pro bono work, has also been slow to get rolling.

Now, with the days slipping away and freedom for thousands in the balance, both the Justice Department and the Clemency Project are feeling the heat. White House Counsel Neil Eggleston told the Washington Post last week that many more petitions will be granted in Obama's final months and that the Justice Department has doubled the number of lawyers at the pardon office. And administration officials said that President Obama wants to see more petitions on his desk.

"The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he's granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations," White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement.

The Justice Department said it was working hard, too.

"The Justice Department has dedicated the maximum amount of resources allowed by Congress to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and we have requested additional funds from Congress for each year the initiative has been in place," spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement.

But it may be too little, too late for the thousands of men and women behind bars who could see freedom being waved in front of them only to vanish when the clock runs out, if things don't change quickly.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: AAA Slams Per Se Marijuana Drugged Driving Laws, Brit College Hands Out Pill Test Kits, More... (5/10/16)

In a major study, AAA finds no scientific basis for drugged driving laws that assume impairment based on THC levels, Orlando becomes the latest city to downgrade small-time pot possession, the Ohio House approves a medical marijuana bill--but no smoking--an English university begins handing out pill test kits to students, and more.

Pill testing kits distributed by Britain's Newcastle University and its local SSDP chapter. (SSDP Newcastle)
Marijuana Policy

AAA Study: No Scientific Basis for Laws Regulating Marijuana and Driving. A new study from the American Automobile Association's Safety Foundation has found that per se limits (those that base an assumption of impaired driving on a specified level of THC in one's system) are "arbitrary and unsupported by the evidence."  Six states have  per se marijuana impaired driving laws, while nine states have zero tolerance marijuana DUID laws, and the AAA calls for scrapping them. They should be replaced by police officers trained to detect impairment, with a THC test as a back-up, the automobile club said.

Orlando "Decriminalizes" Pot Possession. The city council voted 4-3 Tuesday to adopt a revised measure that makes possession of 20 grams or less of weed a violation of city code. Police officers will have the discretion to issue civil citations instead of arresting violators. The fine is $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second,  and a third offense will generate a mandatory court appearance.  Small-time pot possession remains a misdemeanor under state law.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio House Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The House voted 71-26 Tuesday to approve a medical marijuana bill, House Bill 523. Patients under a doctor's supervision could use marijuana oils, tinctures, edibles, and vapors, but could not smoke it, nor could they grow their own.  The bill specifies 18 conditions for which medical marijuana could be used and now goes to the Senate.  Meanwhile, activists are working to get a more patient-friendly medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot.

Harm Reduction

Maryland Governor Signs Needle Access Expansion Bill. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) Tuesday signed into law Senate Bill 97, which will allow thousands of Marylanders to access life-saving needle exchange programs.  The bill passed both chambers with overwhelming support. Maryland ranks 2nd nationally in new per capita HIV infections, and needle exchanges are a proven method of reducing and preventing new infections.

International

British University Handing Out Drug Test Kits to Students. In what as described as a first of its kind harm reduction effort, Newcastle University and the local Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter have joined forces to distribute drug test kits so students can check and see if they drugs they are about to consume are safe or not.  “Although drugs are illegal, statistics suggest lots of young people still use illegal drugs, and that the prevalence of this use is even higher within student communities," said SSDP President Holly Robinson.  “We recognize the safest way to take drugs is not to take drugs but, as some individuals will always choose to take them, we believe it is important to make information and services available to minimise the risks."

Chronicle AM: Global Marijuana Marches, Voters Split on Legalization in MA Poll, More ... (5/9/16)

They marched for weed in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero, New York and Toronto, and many other cities; a Massachusetts poll shows a dead heat for legalization there, Missouri looks set to vote on medical marijuana this year, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Poll Shows Voters Evenly Split on Legalization Initiative. A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll has a ballot proposal to legalize marijuana trailing narrowly, but within the poll's margin of error. The poll had support at 43%, with 46% opposed. The margin of error is +/- 4.4 percentage points. This is a sobering poll result for legalization fans; initiative experts like to see support in the 60% or above range before a campaign begins.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Local Issues on California June Ballot. Two northern California counties and two northern California cities will be voting on medical marijuana-related issues in the June 7 election. In Nevada County, Measure W would prohibit all outdoor marijuana grows and limit indoor grows to 12 plants; in Yuba County, Measure A would allow limited outdoor marijuana cultivation and Measure B would authorize one dispensary for every 20,000 residents; in Sacramento, Measure Y would impose a 5% gross receipts tax on cultivation and manufacturing businesses (requires two-thirds majority); and in Davis, Measure C would allow the city to impose a tax of up to 10% on businesses selling marijuana, although it doesn't currently allow them.

New Approach Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Hands in Signatures. Supporters of the group's medical marijuana initiative handed in some 260,000 raw signatures Sunday. They only need 167,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Even if 30% of the signatures are disqualified, campaigners would still have enough to qualify.

Drug Testing

Alaska Republicans Endorse Drug Testing Welfare Recipients. At its annual convention at the end of April, the state Republican Party endorsed mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients. The notion was voted in as a plank in the state party platform.

International

Global Marijuana Marches All Over the Place. This past weekend was the date for the annual world-wide Global Marijuana March, and march they did in an estimated 829 cities in 72 countries. Thousands came out in Buenos Aires, thousands more in Rio de Janeiro, thousands more in Cologne, Germany, and an estimated 20,000 in Toronto, among others. The US also saw marijuana marches in Texas and New York City, among other places.

Colombia Authorizes Use of Glyphosate for Manual Coca Fumigation. Less than a year after the country banned the aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate to kill coca plants, Colombia's National Narcotics Council has authorized the use of the plant-killer in manual eradication. The move comes as coca cultivation is reportedly on the rise in some parts of the country.

Chronicle AM: Bumper Afghan Opium Crop, No Monopoly Needed for MJ Research, Says State, More... (5/5/16)

It's harvest time in Afghanistan and the poppy crop is bountiful, the State Department says UN drug treaties don't require a NIDA monopoly on research marijuana, CBD bills get signed by the governor in Alabama and go to the governor in Oklahoma, South Dakota's internal possession law is obstructing sentencing reforms, and more.

It's a bumper crop of opium poppies for Aghanistan this year. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legalization Foes Attack Marijuana Potency. The anti-legalization Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, led by Gov. Charlie Baker (R), Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (D), and House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), is set to make an issue of marijuana potency as it attempts to blunt support for the state's legalization initiative. It's a 21st Century version of former drug czar William Bennett's "not your father's marijuana."

Oregon To Allow Recreational Edibles Sales Beginning in June. The Oregon Health Authority issued draft temporary rules Wednesday that will allow the sale of marijuana edibles to recreational users at medical marijuana dispensaries beginning in June. Recreational pot shops aren't open yet, but adults who want to purchase marijuana have been able to do so at dispensaries. Now, they will be able to buy edibles there, too.

Medical Marijuana

State Department Says NIDA Monopoly on Research Marijuana Unnecessary. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement at the State Department has gone on record stating that the United States could issue multiple licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes without violating the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty. The statement came in response to a direct request from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) regarding whether issuing multiple licenses to grow medical marijuana was a violation of the Single Convention. The State Department's interpretation is at odds with that of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which has always maintained that the treaty only allows a single license, which is granted to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This has created what is referred to as the "NIDA monopoly on cannabis," which has stalled medical cannabis research for years.

Alabama Governor Signs CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) Wednesday signed into law "Leni's Law," House Bill 61, which will allow the use of CBD cannabis oil to treat people suffering from debilitating seizures. The bill is named for Leni Young, a child whose family had to move to Oregon because her CBD treatment was illegal in Alabama. The family reports a dramatic reduction in seizures since using cannabis oil.

Oklahoma Legislature Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The House Wednesday voted 69-14 to approve a bill expanding the medicinal use of CBD cannabis oils. Last year, the state approved CBD cannabis oil, but only for people under 18. This bill, which now awaits the governor's signature, removes that age restriction.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Connecticut Bill Would Increase Penalties for Synthetic Opioids. The legislature is considering House Bill 5524, which changes the definition of narcotic substances to include fentanyl and its derivatives. This would expose fentanyl sellers to up to 15 years in prison, as opposed to the up to seven years in prison they currently face.

Drug Policy

South Dakota's Internal Possession Laws An Obstacle to Sentencing Reform, Report Finds. Criminal justice reforms have slowed the growth of the state's prison population, but South Dakota is still locking up too many drug offenders because of a state law that makes ingestion of a controlled substance a felony. That's the bottom line of a new report issued Thursday by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Signs Unemployment Benefits Drug Testing Order. Gov. Scott Walker (R) Wednesday signed an emergency order mandating drug testing for people seeking unemployment benefits. Those who refuse the drug test will have their benefits denied; those who fail it must undergo drug treatment and a job skills assessment in order to retain benefits. The rule will take effect when published later this week.

International

High Yields for Afghanistan's Poppy Crop This Year; Taliban Happy. Farmers and officials in Helmand Province, the heartland of Afghan opium production, are reporting high yields thanks to abundant rainfall and the cancellation of government eradication campaigns. Taliban members were taking part in return for wages and taxes, in cash or in kind, as well as recruiting new members from among the seasonal laborers who scrape the resin from the poppy pods. "We are happy that we had a good harvest this year compared with previous years," said Abdul Rahim Mutmain, a farmer in Musa Qala district. "There is no security concern for a single laborer being checked or robbed by the police," Mr. Mutmain said. "The entire district is under Taliban control and the bulk of the harvesters are Taliban." He added, "Actually, this is the Taliban regime -- you can take your narcotics anywhere or anytime you want to sell them."

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Two cops get their hands slapped for stealing the drug evidence and a former NYPD officer goes down for slinging Oxycontin. Let's get to it:

In Reynoldsburg, Ohio, a former Reynoldsburg police lieutenant pleaded guilty last Thursday to stealing drugs and cash from the departmental evidence room. Shane Mauger was accused of stealing at least $150,000 in cash and property and of filing false search warrant affidavits in order to go on drug raids, which he used as an opportunity to steal cash and property. Mauger agreed to cop to conspiracy to deprive persons of civil rights and federal program theft.

In New York City, a former NYPD officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to supplying Oxycontin to a Long Island drug dealer. Andre Clarke, 37, a 20-year veteran, went down weeks after the dealer was caught hiding the pills in bags of Skittles that he mailed to his infant niece. Clarke copped to one count of drug conspiracy and is looking at up to 20 years in prison when sentenced.

In Colchester, Connecticut, a former Colchester police officer was sentenced Monday to four years in prison for stealing drugs and a gun from the police evidence locker. Tyler Kinney stole drugs to feed his own drug habit, prosecutors said. His thefts forced prosecutors to drop some 30 drug cases. The exact charge on which he was convicted was not specified.

Chronicle AM: ME to Vote on Legalization, AK "Pot Cafes," AL Passes CBD MedMJ, More... (5/2/16)

Lots of Maine news today, Alaska could see "pot cafes," a New Hampshire asset forfeiture bill gets gutted under police pressure, and more.

Coming to Maine?
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Marijuana Draft Regulations Include Pot Cafes. Alaska could become the first legalization state to actually allow social marijuana smoking in designated businesses. The state's Marijuana Control Board has crafted draft regs that would allow users to toke up inside retail stores. The draft regs are now awaiting public comment. While "public" marijuana use is banned, the regs create an exemption for retail stores to seek an "onsite consumption endorsement" to their licenses. Stores with that endorsement could then set aside an area for people to consume marijuana.

California GOP Opposes AUMA Legalization Initiative. The state Republican Party voted at its convention over the weekend to oppose the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) marijuana legalization initiative. "We must not turn this plague loose on our children and the people of California," said Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber, who also called marijuana an "entry-level" drug that leads to addiction. California Democrats have endorsed the initiative.

It's Official: Maine Will Vote on Legalization in November The final obstacle to a popular vote was removed last Friday, when state legislators punted on their chance to act on the citizen legalization initiative, opting instead to send the question to the voters instead. Earlier, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which organized the state's legalization initiative had to go to the courts to force recalcitrant state officials to properly count all the signatures, and they did so.

Vermont House Takes Up Marijuana Legalization Today. The House is considering legalization today, albeit in a roundabout fashion. One House committee rejected the legalization measure, Senate Bill 241, while another amended it to legalize possession and personal cultivation, but not regulated, legal marijuana commerce. The Senate responded by pasting SB 241 into another bill, House Bill 858, which the House is considering today. Stay tuned!

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Both houses of the legislature have now approved "Leni's Law," which would allow people with seizure disorders or other debilitating medical conditions to use CBD cannabis oil to treat their ailments. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) is expected to sign the bill into law.

Connecticut Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Passes Legislature. A bill that would allow children with certain debilitating medical conditions to use medical marijuana has passed out of the legislature after a final Senate vote last Friday. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) is expected to sign House Bill 5450 into law.

New Hampshire's First Dispensary Opens. The Sanctuary Alternative Treatment Center opened in Plymouth last Saturday. It's the first dispensary in the state to open for business. It only took nearly three years after the state's medical marijuana law was approved for this to happen.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire Asset Forfeiture Bill Scaled Back Under Police Pressure. The state Senate last Thursday stripped a provision from an asset forfeiture reform bill that would have directed funds seized by police to the state's general fund rather than to the agency that seized them. The move came after police chiefs said not letting them keep the goodies would "handcuff" them.

Oklahoma Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill that will allow people whose property is subject to asset forfeiture to recover attorney fees when they challenge the seizures. The new law goes into effect November 1.

Drug Policy

Maine Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Moves to Adopt Pre-Arrest Diversion Program. Last Thursday, a bill that would make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony passed into law without the signature of Tea Party Gov. Paul LePage. The bill, LD 1554, decriminalizes the possession of up to 200 milligrams of heroin. Earlier this month, the legislature also approved a bill that would fund Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs, which have proven successful in Seattle and other cities.

Harm Reduction

Maine Legislature Overrides Governor's Veto of Overdose Reversal Drug Bill. The legislature voted last Friday to override gubernatorial vetoes of LD 1457 and LD 1552, which would allow access to naloxone without a prescription and provide public funding for needle exchange, respectively. Gov. Paul Le Page had claimed "naloxone does not save lives, it merely extends them until the next overdose" and complained that the $70 cost would not be repaid.

International

Canada Supreme Court Throws Out Mandatory Minimums for Drug Traffickers. In a decision last Friday, the high court ruled mandatory minimums for repeat drug offenders are unconstitutional. The case is R. v. Lloyd.

Video Killed the Drug Conviction: Chicago Narcs Busted Lying Through Their Teeth [FEATURE]

Part 10 of an occasional series on police and prosecutorial misconduct by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.

It was just another marijuana bust by Chicago's crack dope squad and should have resulted in an easy conviction, but thanks to a forgotten camera, things didn't exactly work out the way the cops planned. Now, the pot dealer is free, he has a bunch of cash in pocket, and it's the cops who are facing justice.

It went down on June 6, 2013, when three Chicago Police narcotics officer and a pair of suburban Glenview police officers pulled over Joseph Sperling on the pretext that he had failed to properly use his turn signal, then claimed Sperling told them there were drugs in his vehicle. The cops said they found marijuana in plain view and arrested Sperling on marijuana possession and distribution charges. Business as usual, so far.

But when it came time to go to court the following March, things went south for the cops. Prosecutors had been questioning Chicago PD narcotics officer William Pruente, who said in sworn testimony that when police pulled over Sperling they immediately smelled marijuana and ordered him to exit the vehicle and stand at the rear of the car.

Then, defense attorney Steven Goldman asked the veteran narc if Sperling was handcuffed after he got out of the car.

"No, he was not handcuffed," Pruente replied. "He was not under arrest at that time."

Chicago narcotic officers Sergeant James Padar and Vince Morgan and Glenview Police officers James Horn and Sergeant Theresa Urbanowski backed up Pruente's story.

Then, as Urbanowski was testifying, defense attorney Goldman dropped a bombshell. He interrupted the testimony to inform Judge Catherine Haberkorn that he needed to offer a videotape into evidence.

In a moment of courtroom drama like something out of "Law and Order," Goldman revealed that the video came from Urbanowski's police cruiser and that it flatly contradicted the sworn testimony of the police officers. The police had been lying to the court and to the judge and the video would prove it, Goldman said.

As Goldman patiently took Urbanowski back over the events she'd testified about, he played the recording and asked her to describe the difference between her original testimony and what was happening on the tape.

The footage contradicted the testimony of the police officers. Pruente had testified that Sperling had not been arrested or handcuffed until the cops had found the dope in plain view, but the video showed Pruente walking up to Sperling's car, reaching in the open window, unlocking the door, pulling Sperling out, handcuffing him, and placing him in the back seat of a patrol car. Only then did the officers move to search the car.

The video clearly showed the officers spending minutes thoroughly searching Sperling's car before finding weed and a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms in a black duffel bag.

As defense attorney Goldman noted during questioning, if the drugs had really been in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle, the officers had no need or reason to search it because they already had the drugs.

The brazen distance between the officers' testimony and what the video revealed infuriated Judge Haberkorn, who immediately granted Goldman's motion to suppress the evidence because the video showed police had neither probable cause to arrest Sperling nor a warrant to search his vehicle.

"This is very outrageous conduct," Haberkorn said from the bench. "All the officers lied on the stand today. All their testimony is a lie. There is strong evidence it was a conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."

Haberkorn then dismissed the criminal charges against Sperling.

"If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone," said Sperling, then 23, during a press conference with reporters after the release of his videotaped arrest. "I just happen to be one of the lucky few that had a video that proved the officers were wrong."

The Cook County criminal justice system may have been done with Sperling, but he wasn't done with it. Shortly after the charges were dismissed, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging illegal search and seizure against the Chicago and Glenview police departments. And he won. The two cities involved settled the suit, paying Sperling $195,000 for his troubles.

Others who have been similarly victimized could do the same. Under the US Code Section 1983, citizens are allowed to sue police in federal court as a result of an illegal search and arrest if the officer acted with malice "under color of law."

In Sperling's case, attorney John Loevy argued in the lawsuit that there was insufficient legal justification for officers to stop and arrest Sperling and search his vehicle, which was done without probable cause. Those illegal actions violated Sperling's civil rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments, as prescribed under Section 18 US Code 242. The argument was strong enough to force the cities to settle.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (twitter.com)
Former Houston Police homicide and narcotic gang investigator Rick Moreno told Drug War Chronicle the officers lied to protect an informant when they could simply have gone by the book and done their bust right.

"Once those officers had all the information about this guy having dope in his car they needed a warrant," Moreno explained.

But the narcs plotted a scheme disguised as a routine traffic stop to avoid having to obtain one.

"What they've done in this case was a 'wall off' technique." Moreno said, referring to a strategy most narcotic officers use to put a wall between the officer and the information provided by a snitch. And if everything goes as planned, the officer gets the dope without a warrant, they got the dope dealer and the snitch is protected."

"The biggest casualty in the war on drugs is the truth," said Chicago civil attorney Jon Loevy, who represented Sperling in his civil rights lawsuit.

"The ends justify the means," said criminal defense attorney Goldman, explaining the attitudes that drove the cops to lie on the stand. "So because they get the bad guy off the street or the drugs out of their hands, everybody's happy."

Well, not everybody, not when the lies are so blatant they cannot be ignored. The Cook County criminal justice system wasn't done with the cops caught lying on the witness stand. Sgt. Urbanowski's camera had caught them red-handed, and four of them were indicted by a Cook County grand jury on perjury, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct charges in June 2015. They all face up to five years in prison on each count. The three Chicago police officers were immediately suspended, and the Glenview police officer was later fired. Their trials got underway this week.

"The foundation of our criminal justice system rests on the concept of truthful testimony," said Cook County States' Attorney Anita Alvarez in a press statement announcing the indictments. "We expect it from our witnesses and we demand it from our police officers."

The criminal charges filed against the officers made headlines across the state and constituted another black mark against the much criticized Chicago Police Department. But the buzz around the courthouse was not just over the charges, but whether they would lead to the dismissal of other drug cases in which the charged cops were involved.

Calls to the Cook County prosecutor's office regarding whether the four indicted officers would be investigated for perjury or illegal tactics in previous drug cases have not been returned.

While Sperling won $195,000 in damages from his illegal search and seizure lawsuit, legal experts say such victories are rare. Defendants usually don't pursue such suits due to lack of funds, and if a case involving a bad search is dismissed, most defendants are just relieved the case is over and they no longer face charges, said Penn State University law professor David Rudovsky, a leading civil rights and criminal defense attorney and author of The Law of Arrest, Search, and Seizure.

Penn State law professor David Rudovsky (law.penn.edu)
Rudovsky told Drug War Chronicle there is also another reason such lawsuits are rare.

"Why would a jury award money for damages to a criminal already proven to have committed a crime?" he asked rhetorically.

Police perjury is nothing new -- the practice has even generated its own nickname, "testilying" -- but the Sperling case has renewed debate over why law enforcers resort to breaking the law.

"Police perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace," wrote former San Francisco police commissioner Peter Keane in a much-cited article on the topic.

"I've heard some police officers say in a social setting, 'If [the defendant] is going to lie to beat the case, why can't I lie too?" Cook County Public Defender, and former prosecutor Abishi Cunningham Jr. related.

"When police lie to make a case on someone they are saying the criminal justice system doesn't work... so I'm going to do it my way," Houston civil and criminal attorney Annie Briscoe told the Chronicle.

Briscoe recalled a drug case involving police illegal search where police recovered a sizeable amount of drugs from a client of hers. Houston police claimed he resembled a fugitive they were looking for. With her client facing up to life in prison, Briscoe convinced the trial judge to throw out the charge because of illegal search and seizure through the simple expedient of showing the judge a photo of the fugitive, who looked nothing like her client.

While the judge called Briscoe's client "one lucky guy," Briscoe had a slightly different take.

"The law should be enforceable by way of truth," she said.

Police are also incentivized by the war on drugs to cut corners so they can reap monetary rewards, whether through asset forfeiture or by earning federal anti-drug grants through aggressive enforcement actions. And each bust makes their numbers look better.

As NYPD Officer Adil Polanco once revealed through a surfeit of honesty, "Our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them. You have to write somebody, arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number is there."

Yes, there are numerous reasons cops lie. But none of them justify the lying, or the corrosive effect such behavior has on public trust and respect for law enforcement. These Chicago police officers are about to find out just how seriously the system takes such dishonesty, especially when it is so blatant the system can't pretend it doesn't see it.

Chicago, IL
United States

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