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Chronicle AM -- December 9, 2013

A West Virginia man gets a first degree murder charge in his wife's accidental drug death, a Utah "Good Samaritan" overdose bill is moving, some US senators grumble about Zohydro ER, and we have a pair of stories about opiates in India. And more. Let's get to it:

Zohydro ER
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts High Court Rules against Prosecutors in Small-Time Marijuana Cases. Possession of up to an ounce of pot is decriminalized in Massachusetts, even if that less-than-an-ounce amount is divided up in separate baggies. The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled last month that possessing small amounts of marijuana in separate baggies is not sufficient evidence to charge someone with possession with intent to distribute. Prosecutors are grumbling.

Harm Reduction

Utah "Good Samaritan" Drug Overdose Bill Moving. A bill that would provide limited criminal immunity for people who report a drug overdose has passed the Criminal Justice Committee and will be taken up by the full legislature when it reconvenes next month. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss (D-Holladay) and has the backing of harm reductionists and the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors alike. There were more than 500 drug overdose deaths in Utah last year.

Law Enforcement

COPS Program Worried About Police Militarization. Cop-watcher Radley Balko notes that the monthly newsletter of the Justice Department's Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) program is raising the alarm about the militarization of policing in the US. Balko cites a warning from COPS program senior policy analyst Karl Bickel: "Police chiefs and sheriffs may want to ask themselves -- if after hiring officers in the spirit of adventure, who have been exposed to action oriented police dramas since their youth, and sending them to an academy patterned after a military boot camp, then dressing them in black battle dress uniforms and turning them loose in a subculture steeped in an 'us versus them' outlook toward those they serve and protect, while prosecuting the war on crime, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism -- is there any realistic hope of institutionalizing community policing as an operational philosophy?"

West Virginia Man Faces First Degree Murder Charge in Wife's Drug Overdose Death. Prosecutors have charged a Roane County man with first degree murder in the accidental drug overdose of his wife. Todd Honaker thought he was buying LSD, but instead gave his wife the synthetic drug 25b-NBOMe ("N-bomb"). The man who supplied the drug has been charged with delivery of a controlled substance. It's not clear why Honaker is facing such severe charges.

Pain Pills

Four Senators Scold FDA on Zohydro Approval. Four US senators have sent a letter to the FDA saying they disagree with its decision to approve Zohydro ER, a long-acting version of the pain reliever hydrocodone. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) said the decision "will only contribute to the rising toll of addiction and death" caused by the misuse of prescription drugs. Zohydro can be crushed and snorted by people seeking a strong, quick high, which the senators called "irresponsible." [Ed: As the item immediately below about pain control in India demonstrates, poorly conceived control measures can and do have a devastating impact on the lives of pain patients who end up under-medicated or un-medicated. We have this problem in the US too. Other measures than bans are needed to address prescription drug misuse -- the FDA was right to approve Zohydro.]

International

Less Than 4% of Indians Suffering From Chronic Cancer Pain Have Access to Morphine. Legal restrictions on access to opioid pain medications leave millions of Indians suffering from severe and chronic pain without access to relief, leading to an "epidemic of pain in India." Ironically, India produces 99% of the global supply of licit opium, most of which it exports.

Indian Authorities Warn of Rising Opium Cultivation in Northeast. Illicit opium production is on the rise in states such as Manipur and Nagaland, Indian drug experts said at a Saturday conference in Guwahati. Cultivation was increasing both as a cash crop and for personal consumption, the experts said. In some villages, between 60% and 90% of families were growing opium, they said.

Chronicle AM -- December 5, 2013

Busy, busy on the marijuana policy front today, and there is also medical marijuana news, a new report on coerced federal plea bargains, a call for call-ins to the Senate on mandatory minimums next week, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Possession Legal in Portland, Maine, As of Tomorrow, But... The voter-approved ordinance legalizing the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana by people 21 and over goes into effect Friday. But tokers beware: The police chief says he is going to continue to enforce state law, which is stricter. Maine is a decriminalization state, so getting caught with a small amount of pot will still get you a fine.

Legalization Initiative Filed in Missouri. The Missouri marijuana reform group Show-Me Cannabis Regulation has filed an initiative that would amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana. Petitioners will have to collect signatures from about 320,000 registered voters by May 4 to qualify for the November 2014 ballot.

Washington State Marijuana Business Applications Surpass 1,300. Lots of people want to get into the legal marijuana business in Washington state. Regulators there are reviewing over 1,300 applications and there are still two weeks left for people to apply. More than 600 have applied for commercial growing licenses, more than 450 to produce edibles, and 230 have applied to open retail outlets. Regulators will license up to 334 pot shops, and there is no limit to the number of growers or producers, although the state wants to limit production to two million square feet.

Seattle City Attorney Wants More Marijuana Stores. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said Wednesday that he has asked the State Liquor Control Board to allow at least 50 marijuana retail sales licenses to be issued in the city. The Board has proposed allowing only 21, but Holmes said that will not be enough to meet demand in the city.

Legalization Referendum Proposed for Dane County (Madison), Wisconsin. Dane County voters could vote on whether the state should legalize marijuana after a member of the county Board of Supervisors said he planned to introduce a measure that would ask them just that. The proposal has to pass the board, and if it does, voters would vote on a non-binding advisory referendum on the spring 2014 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Action on Medical Marijuana Bills Delayed in Michigan. The Associated Press reported Thursday that votes on pending medical marijuana bills are unlikely until next year, although it didn't say why. Still, hundreds of people jammed legislative committee rooms to voice their opinions on improving the state's medical marijuana law.

Hearing Today on Medical Marijuana in Buffalo. Legislators in New York held a public hearing to gain support for medical marijuana legislation in Buffalo Thursday. More than two dozen speakers were invited to testify about the proposed legislation. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), chair of the Assembly Health Committee, chaired the meeting.

Sentencing Reform

Call Your Senators on Mandatory Minimum Reform Next Tuesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next Thursday on mandatory minimum sentencing reform and the Smarter Sentencing Act, S. 1410. If passed, that bill would benefit thousands of nonviolent federal offenders facing mandatory minimum sentences (including some crack offenders who are already in federal prison). Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is urging people whose senators are on the committee to call in to voice their support next Tuesday. Click on the link for more details.

Human Rights Watch Report Condemns Forced Pleas in Federal Drug Cases. Human Rights Watch Thursday released a report condemning coercive plea bargaining by federal prosecutors in drug cases and calling for sentencing reform. The report is An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

International

Israeli Health Ministry Bill Would Expand Medical Marijuana Program. The Israeli Health Ministry is proposing legislation that would increase the number of doctors authorized to prescribe medical marijuana and allow it to be distributed through pharmacies. The ministry is resisting allowing even broader access.

British Drug Think-Tank Offers Guide to Marijuana Regulation. The British drug think-tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation has issued How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide for policy makers, drug policy reform advocates and affected communities all over the world, who are witnessing the question change from, "Should we maintain cannabis prohibition?" to "How will legal regulation work in practice?"

Human Rights Watch on Coerced Guilty Pleas in US Drug Cases

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/offer-you-cant-refuse.jpg
A report from Human Rights Watch released this morning demonstrates the corruption of justice that mandatory minimum sentencing has brought about. According to "An Offer You Can't Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Defendants to Plead Guilty," prosecutors commonly force drug defendants to plead to lengthy mandatory sentences in order to avoid losing their entire lives. Jamie Fellner of HRW writes:

"Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial," said Jamie Fellner, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse. This is coercion pure and simple."
 

In one case cited, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, declined to plea to 10 years for possession of 50 grams of crack with intent to deliver. Prior convictions she had for simple drug possession triggered a sentencing enhancement, at the prosecutor's behest, and Avery was sentenced to life without parole.

I think that very clearly constitutes a human rights violation, and we need to take this kind of power away from the officials who perpetrate such violations. One way to do that is by repealing mandatory minimum sentencing. There is a real chance of doing that, for the first time in a very long time, as a recent article we published shows. More on this coming soon.

The Crooked Cop and the Case of the Vanishing Guilty Plea [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigates@gmail.com. This is Part 8 in his continuing series of stories about prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption in the drug war.

In an unusual recent case, the US 4th Circuit Appeals Court overturned a conviction in a crack cocaine case despite the defendant having pleaded guilty. The case involving Baltimore drug dealer Cortez Leon Fisher was not overturned because the plea agreement was coerced or not voluntary -- the usual standard -- but because it was based on the lies of a corrupt police officer.

The case -- but not this tale -- began with an October 29, 2007 raid on Fisher's home executed by Baltimore police officer and DEA drug task force member Mark Lunsford. The search turned up crack cocaine and a loaded weapon. To avoid a decades-long stretch behind bars, Fisher copped a plea to one count of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Federal District Court Judge Frederick Motz then sentenced Fisher to 10 years in federal prison.

Fisher subsequently appealed to overturn his plea agreement after Lunsford was indicted on theft and perjury charges involving his use of bogus informants to falsely arrest and rip off drug dealers. In July 2010, the crooked cop got 20 months in federal prison for his crimes.

Lunsford's arrest and conviction uncovered a pattern of fabricating evidence to enrich police officers and selected informants, who received payments in cases in which they had not provided information. Reward money was fraudulently awarded to undeserving informants, and the proceeds were split between Lunsford and the snitches.

A search of Lunsford's home turned up jewelry belonging to alleged drug dealers and $46,000 in cash stolen from them. Federal prosecutors made no effort to return the stolen money to its rightful owners, but instead seized it for their own coffers.

But it gets worse. Lunsford also had a long history with Fisher and some of his family members, whom he had previously arrested on drug charges, some of which had been dismissed. In this light, Lunsford's pursuit of Fisher takes on the appearance of a personal vendetta.

When Fisher discovered that Lunsford had been indicted for perjury and theft in 2009, he wrote a pro se appeal to the judge who sentenced him, requesting that his guilty plea be vacated. But Judge Motz demurred.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/J._Frederick_Motz_District_Judge.jpg
Judge Fredrik Motz
"Unquestionably if the defendant had known of Lunsford's misconduct he would have filed a motion to suppress, and the motion may well have been successful," Motz wrote in denying the appeal. Nevertheless, "the defendant does not deny he was in possession of a firearm (as he admitted under oath during his Rule 11).Under these circumstances, I cannot find that a failure to allow defendant to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a 'miscarriage of justice.'"

Fisher appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. In his appeal, Fisher wrote that Lunsford "set me up and arrested me unlawfully." The informant in the case, Fisher said in the appeal, "never gave Lunsford information concerning drug activities at Fisher's home." Citing prior arrests of Fisher by Lunsford years ago, the appeal went on to say that after Lunsford arrested Fisher in 2007 in the current case, "the officer returned to my apartment later, stole a safe containing all my jewelry specifically numerous diamonds with blue and red design, including a diamond watch."

The 4th Circuit overturned the trial judge. The key question for the court was whether a police officer's misrepresentations of facts invalidated a guilty plea under the due process clause. The court noted that in order to invalidate a plea, the defendant must show that egregious impermissible conduct preceded the entry of the plea and that the misconduct influenced the defendant's decision to plead guilty.

While one member of the three-judge panel voted to dismiss Fisher's appeal, arguing that "natural reaction of extreme distaste to Lunsford's criminal act does not instantaneously transform Fisher's guilty plea into some form of due process violation that permits him now to withdraw his plea," his was a dissenting opinion.

Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd disagreed. Lunsford's lies influenced Fisher to cop a plea and his perjury "undermined the entire proceedings, thus rendering the defendant's pleas involuntary, and violated his due process rights," they wrote. "A plea based on law enforcement fraud is invalid even if the person is guilty," the court held in its ruling in the case.

Cortez Fisher is still behind bars, waiting to see if the US Attorney's Office in Maryland will dismiss his case. Meanwhile, Lunford, the dirty cop, has already been released from prison, as have other defendants caught up in Lunsford's perjury and bogus search warrants.

Fisher was scheduled to appear in court on October 25th to resolve the matter, but a court clerk told the Chronicle a new date has not been announced yet. Fisher's attorney, Marta Khan, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment about the matter.

"I was supposed to be home like the other people that they let go behind Lunsford's lies but I believe the feds will try to recharge me," Fisher told the Chronicle in a letter from prison."But I am ready for a new trial since I have all this new evidence."

Cop v. Drug Dealer

Baltimore police officer Mark Lunsford despised drug dealer Cortez Fisher. Their adversarial history stretches years to when Lunsford rode patrol near Baltimore's notorious Murphy Homes Project, where Fisher and his brother called "Midget" sold drugs, according to court documents.

Between 1993 and 2004, Lunsford's aggressive efforts to rid the crime-ridden community of drug dealers helped fellow narcotics officers make some of the cases against Fisher, including one particular case in 1999 when Fisher faced charges for armed marijuana trafficking.

In 2001, Fisher picked up another drug case, but was never convicted. Doggedly pursuing Fisher, Lunsford finally nailed him in 2004 on drug trafficking and a weapons charge filed in federal court. Fisher immediately copped a plea to serve 36 months in prison.

After finishing serving the 36 months, Fisher got nailed again on drug charges by Lunsford, this time costing him another 12 months behind bars. But Lunsford wasn't through yet.

In a search warrant affidavit dated October 29, 2007, Lunsford wrote that he received reliable information from a snitch that Fisher was selling drugs out of his house. Then, based on that false report, Lunsford claimed he personally saw Fisher sell drugs from his car. It was all a lie.

Court records filed in Fisher's case include a redacted FBI document dated October 23, 2009, where Lunsford admits that he fabricated source information in Fisher's and numerous other narcotics cases that sent citizens to prison. Lunsford told FBI agent that, fully aware of Fisher's involvement in the drug trade, he had lied when he said the informant he had named in the affidavit was the source of his information about Fisher.

Fisher may well have had a career as a drug dealer, but as the 4th Circuit noted, "even the guilty can suffer a miscarriage of justice."

Cortez Fisher remains imprisoned as he awaits word on what prosecutors will do. In the worst case, he will stay there until 2017. Meanwhile, the crooked cop whose perjurious information led to Fisher's arrest and subsequent plea bargain is a free man, not on parole, and not in the clutches of the criminal justice system.

For the guy from the mean streets of Baltimore, there is nothing left to do except to start over -- again.

"They took everything I had," he explained.

Baltimore, MD
United States

HUGE: Administration to Allow State Marijuana Legalization to Proceed

Dept. of Justice building, Washington, DC (gsa.gov)
Deputy Attorney General James Cole has issued "guidance" to federal prosecutors with respect to the state marijuana laws. The memo is online here. The press release is here.

Though it refers to regulatory legalization, as is happening in Colorado and Washington, the memo indicates that the guidance is for "all states." It additionally includes "civil enforcement," which would seem to go beyond criminal prosecutions and investigations to include problems like forfeiture threats directed at landlords and so forth. As a DOJ memo it would not constrain IRS audits of dispensaries.

There is plenty of wriggle room for prosecutors to target people, if that's what Cole and Holder and Obama intend. But at a first glance at least, it looks to me like the memo is seeking to allow Colorado and Washington to proceed with marijuana legalization, and that it may help ease things up in the medical marijuana states as well.

Phil will be posting a Chronicle story momentarily.

A Sentencing Reform Turning Point?

For months now there have been signs that political will may be building for a change in direction in sentencing and prison policy. In one of the top news stories the past 24 hours (NYT and WaPo, among others), it's been reported that US Attorney General Eric Holder will issue a revised policy on when federal prosecutors will seek mandatory minimum sentences, seeking to spare low-level drug offenders from such heavy punishments. Holder will address the American Bar Association at their annual conference in San Francisco (10:00am TODAY, Pacific Time, e.g. any minute), and is expected to highlight the reforms. (The ABA has someone live-tweeting, and it's scheduled to run on C-Span.)

The move should bolster momentum for the Justice Safety Valve Act, sponsored by Sens. Leahy (D-VT) and Paul (R-KY), as well as the Durbin-Lee Smarter Sentencing Act, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections and other efforts. In a sign of changing times, the conservative ALEC legislators and business leaders network has called for passage of the Leahy-Paul bill.

Phil will be posting a feature report in the Chronicle after the speech is done.

Location: 
San Francisco, CA
United States

Serial Offender: Miami Fed. Prosecutor Called on Misconduct in Drug Cases [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part 6 in a series, "Prosecutorial Misconduct and Police Corruption in Drug Cases Across America."

There is something rotten in Miami. A federal prosecutor there, Assistant US Attorney Andrea Hoffman, seems to have problems staying within the bounds of the law as she attempts to prosecute major drug cases. As a result, cases are coming undone, and some Colombians are going home, some who likely were innocent. And Hoffman's pattern of prosecutorial misconduct has so far come without serious professional consequences.

2011 press conference in Bogota announcing the 56 indictments (presidencia.gov.co)
On September 2, 2011, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami Wilfredo Ferrer announced the arrest of 56 Colombians in a trio of separate foreign investigations -- Operation Seven Trumpets, Operation Under the Sea, and Operation BACRIM (Bandas Criminales). In what was one of America's biggest drug busts, authorities also seized 21 airplanes, 12 submarines, millions of dollars in cash, and more than 20 tons of cocaine and heroin.

"Together with our law enforcement partners in Colombia, we have developed a proactive strategy to combat the rise of narco-trafficking operations to eliminate the threat they pose to the security of the international community," Ferrer crowed at a press conference with Colombia President Santos and Prosecutor General Viviane Morales in Bogota that day.

But what appeared to a slam-dunk case validating America's never-ending war on drugs soon went sideways, and Hoffman was there. Two Colombian nationals arrested in the case, John Winer and Jose Buitrago, who were looking at life in prison without parole, are now free men after federal District Court Judge Marcia Cooke ruled earlier this year that Hoffman deliberately withheld key evidence from the defense, undermining the defendants' rights to a fair trial.

And that's just for starters.

Winer and Buitrago

On May 21, a jury had already been seated to hear the case against Winer, represented by attorney Jose Quinon, and Buitrago when the latter's defense attorneys, Kashap Patel and Helen Batoff, got DEA agents and a Colombian narcotics officer to acknowledge they knew the DEA was making monthly payments to "vetted units" of the Colombian narcotics police -- and that prosecutor Hoffman also knew about those payments.

"Vetted units" are elite anti-drug squads whose members have passed muster as not being corrupt, and are often used by the DEA and other agencies in their overseas investigations. These units are required to file monthly reports on their activities in order to justify incurred expenses paid for by the DEA as part of US foreign assistance to Colombia to wage the drug war.

Hoffman denied any previous knowledge of the payments to the vetted units.

But on the stand that day, Colombian police officer Pacheco blew up Hoffman's denials about the DEA payments. Pacheco said the matter about the money was discussed between him, Hoffman, and DEA agent Guillermo Turke upon arriving in Miami from Bogota on Sunday, May 14th.

Attorneys Patel and Batoff had already been tipped-off about the use of the vetted units in the case against their clients, and prosecutors acknowledged as much, but refused to disclose information about their role in the case unless the defense attorneys could prove they were entitled to it.

Under the Brady rule, the government is required to turn over exculpatory evidence or material information in the government's possession that could be favorable to a defendant.

"The defense sent a written request to get the documents from Hoffman and her co-counsel, Cynthia Wood, on April 3, 2013," Patel told Judge Cooke. Receiving no reply from Hoffman,  defense attorneys re-sent the letter and, on May 1, received a reply from Hoffman's office acknowledging that the payment information existed, but demanding that the defense explain how it was entitled to that information.

"Tell me why it's Brady material, or under what theory you are entitled to it," prosecutor Christina Maxwell responded.

"The DEA payments to Colombian officers were disclosable to the defense without them having to file a Brady motion to get them," harrumphed Washington, DC, criminal defense attorney Stephan Leckar in an interview with the Chronicle.

US District Court Judge Marcia Cooke didn't let Hoffman get away with misconduct. (stu.edu)
Judge Cooke suspended the trial to hold a hearing on the matter, and things only got worse for Hoffman. Cook and the defense attorneys grilled a bevy of DEA agents, and they testified that Hoffman had known about the payments at an earlier date.

Bogota DEA Special Agent Guillermo Turke reiterated Pacheco's testimony that the "payments were specifically discussed with Hoffman on May 19th".

Miami DEA Corrine Martin told the frustrated judge "after all of the court motions, we spoke with DEA Special Agent Ed Reed about the payments and we also let Ms. Hoffman know."

Replying to a question from Judge Cook, Miami DEA Special Agent Mike Torbert concurred.

"I discovered there was a $200 operational expense given to SIU (special investigation units)," he told the court. "I passed the information to Ms. Hoffman."

Although her office had responded to defense letters about the payments on May 1, acknowledging they had occurred, Hoffman insisted to Judge Cooke that she had first found out about them on May 20, on the eve of the trial. But when Cooke pressed, Hoffman revised.

"Your honor, I found out about the payments at noon on May 21," she then replied.

But after hearing the defense evidence that Hoffman in fact knew about the money paid to the Colombian sources before the trial started, Judge Cooke accused Hoffman of prosecutorial misconduct, or intentionally engaging in inappropriate or illegal behavior by withholding evidence or knowing permitting false testimony and tampering with witnesses. Hoffman had violated the Brady rule by not automatically turning over materially important evidence to the defense prior to trial and when the trial started.

Had defense attorneys been given the information by Hoffman about the DEA payoffs, the wiretaps in the Winer-Buitrago case could have been challenged and used to impeach witnesses, the attorneys argued.  "The scope of the defense would've been different," Patel explained to the judge.

Hoffman apologized to the court, blaming her misconduct on miscommunications due to language barriers, but Judge Cooke wasn't buying it.

"I think the US government was aware of Colombian police officers receiving payments and did not disclose it to the defense," an angry Cooke replied. "The prosecutor was ethically and legally bound to turn the information over. This does not make sense to me. This is all you do. Answer this:  Why does the government get a pass?"

Defense attorneys moved to have the case dismissed because of Hoffman's misbehavior.

"The government's conduct deprived the defendants of their constitutional rights to due process," the attorneys wrote. "Such flagrant disregard for the rule of law and brazen dishonesty to the court and to opposing counsel should 'shock' the court's conscience."

Judge Cooke denied the motion to dismiss but a deal was struck. Winer and Buitrago both pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to transport cocaine and were sentenced to 36 months, with credit for the two years they had already been behind bars pending trial. Both men were subsequently released from custody.

Winer and Buitrago and the Practice of Information Buying and Selling

The little matter of the Brady rule violation in the area of the vetted units wasn't Hoffman's only problem in the Winer-Buitrago case. Defense attorneys also accused her of failing to disclose a letter indicating that another Colombian, Daniel Bustos, who was facing years in prison on a cocaine conspiracy charge, had paid money to another drug defendant, Fabian Cruz, so that Cruz would use his informant connection with prosecutors or outsiders to obtain "inside information" about evidence in the Winer-Buitrago case and feed it to Bustos. Then, Bustos and other defendants could use that information to testify falsely for the prosecution against the Operation Seven defendants in exchange for leniency.

But Assistant US Attorney Hoffman rejected a defense request to obtain the whistleblower letter exposing the dealings between Bustos and Cruz. In the courtroom, Hoffman confirmed that the letter existed, and Judge Cooke gruffly ordered her to produce it for the defense, again citing the Brady rule. At the time, Bustos and Cruz were already on the prosecutors' witness list.

This underground scheme is called "buying and selling" evidence (fake or real) for a defendant to get on the bus with the Feds and ride all the way home to freedom. In a December 2012 story in USA Today, reporter Brad Heath exposed the inner workings of the practice, illustrating how prisoners game the system by buying and selling evidence against other defendants with pending drug cases, then using that bought information to testify for the prosecution in exchange for sentence cuts and early freedom.

That report found that "one out of eight" federal drug convicts had their sentences reduced for helping prosecutors. Similarly, the Houston Chronicle reported that federal judges last year "resentenced 1,738 inmates nationwide after they provided substantial assistance" to investigators and prosecutors.

The corrupt scheme works like this: An inmate with outside connections (or already an informant) will have relatives and friends collect information on the street about a drug dealer's operation, or have operatives to dig up additional information about a dealer awaiting trial. Then the inmate will sell the collected information to prisoners who have money but are short on facts or criminal contacts to cooperate with the government on their own.

Daniel Bustos was hoping to lessen his sentence by paying Cruz to get information on Winer and Buitrago and then using that information to testify against them. And Hoffman was prepared to let him until defense attorneys blew the whistle.

Hoffman has not been officially sanctioned by the court for her misconduct in the Winer-Buitrago case. A court worker told the Chronicle recently that while the matter was under consideration, no ruling had been issued, and Hoffman was still assigned to Cooke's courtroom.

A Miami public affairs spokesman for US Attorney's Office for Florida Southern District declined to comment.

That's not the end of the trouble in Miami. Operation Seven Trumpets and its prosecutors have taken more hits, with other Colombians who had been indicted in the operation and extradited to the US being released and sent home after the charges turned out to have been unfounded.

Carlos Ortega Bonilla

Carlos Ortega Bonilla hugs his son as he is released. (seitleslaw.com)
Carlos Ortega Bonilla and William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez, both Colombian nationals, were arrested and extradited to the US as part of operations Seven Trumpets and BANCRIM. Both were thrown into the Miami Federal Detention Center to await trial on cocaine charges, and both faced up to life in prison if convicted.

Ortega Bonilla, the former head of Colombia's Flight Security (the equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration), was enjoying his retirement in Bogota when agents armed with paramilitary-style weapons swarmed his home and arrested him.

"You have been indicted for supplying airplanes to traffickers to ship tons of cocaine to other Latin countries and the US," one of the drug agents told him. The agent explained that Ortega Bonilla's voice had been heard on wiretaps selling planes to drug dealers, in particular one Alvaro Suarez, a veteran trafficker who had once worked as a pilot for legendary Medellin Cartel capo Pablo Escobar.

Protesting his innocence all the while, Ortega Bonilla was imprisoned in Bogota while he unsuccessfully fought extradition to the US. He was eventually transferred to Miami, where he languished in jail as he sought to prove his innocence, but that was an extremely hard sell for Assistant US Attorney Hoffman.

"I never worked harder in my life," Miami criminal defense attorney Mark Seitles told the Daily Business Review about his attempts to convince Hoffman to drop the charges.

Seitles immediately hired Ed Kacerosky as an investigator. Kacerosky is a highly decorated former US Customs Agent credited with helping the Feds dismantle the infamous Cali Cartel. Ironically as an agent, Kacerosky had worked closely on previous major drug cases with Hoffman.

Authorities targeted Ortega Bonilla, tapping his phone, but failed to provide evidence that any airplanes he sold were linked to drug trafficking. The key to his freedom would lie in the wiretaps.

"Kacerosky realized after hearing the wiretaps that there was a gross misidentification, and they indicted my client Ortega for acts of another guy named Carlos," Seitles explained.

At an August 14, 2012, hearing in the courtroom of Judge Cooke, Seitles explained that his client had been wrongfully indicted on drug crimes and that his own investigation discovered irrefutable evidence the feds had misidentified his client's voice on the wiretaps.

As a plane broker, Ortega Bonilla sold or leased aircraft, and someone had convinced the feds that he was dirty. But they were wrong.

"Ortega Bonilla's voice was on the wiretaps in one plane deal where he determined that the men who sought the aircraft were drug dealers," Seitles explained. "And he refused to do the deal. No plane was ever sold and emails sent by Ortega Bonilla to the men showed he refused to do business with drug traffickers. There are even recorded calls with Ortega Bonilla attempting to contact the FBI to tell them about this. And the affidavit in support of extraditing Mr. Ortega Bonilla mentioned seven planes and no mention of that airplane, which was an E-90."

The seven planes in question actually belonged to another Carlos, Honduran drug dealer Carlos Litona, Seitles explained.

But Hoffman was having none of it. She argued to Judge Cooke that she had a witness, a co-defendant willing to testify that Carlos Ortega Bonilla was the right guy. Seitles countered in a separate hearing, putting Kacerosky on the stand with the wiretap tapes to explain how he had uncovered evidence that the feds had fingered the wrong man.

"The real guy is Carlos Litona," Kacerosky told the judge.

Without calling her secret witness, Hoffman dropped the charges on August 31.

When Ortega's family arrived at the airport in the Colombian capitol, hundreds of supporters surrounded them, hugging him with teary eyes and wishing him well. But his problems aren't over.

"Ortega Bonilla's US visa has been revoked, and he's having a hard time accepting that he was in custody for a crime he did not commit," Seitles told the Chronicle.

Ortega Bonilla has hired a Colombian attorney to file a lawsuit there and is currently searching for legal representation in the US to file a lawsuit here.

William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez

In June 2006, DEA and Colombian National Police jointly investigated a widespread conspiracy among multiple defendants importing cocaine and heroin on cargo planes traveling from Colombia and landing at Miami International Airport. DEA picked up the name of a cargo worker named "Willy" who supposedly was part of the conspiracy. An informant even identified "Willy" 's voice on wiretaps.

Willy Gil-Perenguez was living the good life at the time in Cali. He had a beloved girlfriend and a decent job, working for the Girag cargo air freight company. But in June 2007, his good life came to a screeching halt, when Colombian drug agents arrested him, believing he was the "Willy" overheard on the drug investigation wiretaps.

He was taken to a DEA office in Colombia, where agents threatened him, telling him to cooperate with them or they could make a phone call and have him sent to prison for 30 years. Gil-Perenguez maintained his innocence, saying he had no idea what they were talking about. In September 2008, he was extradited to Miami to face assorted drug charges that potentially carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Facing the wrath and the resources of the US government, Gil-Perenguez caught a lucky break while sitting at the Miami Federal Detention Center awaiting trial. He encountered another detainee, Neixi Garcia Lamela, a major target of Operation Seven Trumpets, who had agreed to cooperate with the feds. But he had bombshell news for Gil-Perenguez.

"DEA agents and Hoffman tried to pressure me to implicate you but I refused, because I knew I would be fabricating testimony to implicate an innocent person," Garcia Lamela told Gil-Perenguez, according to a lawsuit he later filed.

Gil-Perenguez immediately contacted his attorney, Luis Guerra. Guerra relayed to Hoffman the information about Garcia Lamela's admission that his client was innocent.

"I went to Hoffman and said, 'You have the wrong guy. My guy is innocent,'" Guerra told Law.com. "She said she had other witnesses. Turns out the witnesses never existed," Guerra recounted.

After serving 19 months behind bars, which included one year in Colombia's Combita lockup, a place described by human rights activists as one of the most oppressive and notorious prisons in the world, US District Judge Donald Graham freed Gil-Perenguez in February 2009, finding that his voice had been wrongfully identified on the wiretaps.

Gil-Perenguez returned to Colombia wearing a "bad jacket." His fellow countrymen think he snitched on others to be released so early. He filed a $10 million wrongful arrest lawsuit against the US government, charging that he had been left jobless and in pain and suffering. But the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the US lacked jurisdiction and that it couldn't be sanctioned for "any claims arising in a foreign country."

"Our country is not supposed to be making these kinds of mistakes," Florida attorney Richard Diaz, who represented Gil-Perenguez  in the civil suit, told Law.com.

Hoffman and her colleagues have managed to win some convictions in these high-profile drug conspiracy cases, and given her hardball attitude and willingness to skirt -- if not cross over completely -- the bounds of prosecutorial misconduct, that comes as no surprise. But other Colombian defendants continue to be exonerated, with two more of them, Luis Alfonso Rubiano Ramos and Jose Norberto Mejia Cortez having their cases dismissed and going home in June.

Dr. Ali Shaygan

Dr. Ali Shaygan has nothing to do with Colombian drug trafficking conspiracies, but his case is yet another example of Hoffman's prosecutorial overreach. As previously reported in the Chronicle, Shaygan was charged with overprescribing narcotics as part of the federal government's campaign against prescription drug abuse, but later acquitted.

After his acquittal, Shaygan won a $600,000 judgment against Hoffman and another federal prosecutor, with the judge in the case finding their conduct in attempting to influence witnesses and deny potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense so "profoundly disturbing that it raises troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute."

That judgment was overturned by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shaygan and his supporters sought review at the US Supreme Court, but were turned down. In the meantime, Hoffman is still on the job in Miami and, if her work on the big drug investigations is any indication, still bumping up against the rules without serious professional consequence. Prosecutorial misconduct still seems to be a bridge too far for the American criminal justice system to address.

Miami, FL
United States

Angry Afternoon (The Human and Fiscal Cost of the Medical Marijuana Wars)

Two reports came out today about the federal government's attacks on medical marijuana providers. First, California NORML surveyed court records connected with medical marijuana cases, finding nearly 500 person years of incarceration for medical marijuana defendants. Second, Americans for Safe Access has estimated $300 million spent by the Obama administration on anti-medical marijuana enforcement, after $200 million spent in two terms of the Bush administration -- half a billion total.

Dale Schafer and Mollie Fry (canorml.org)
Among the cases highlighted are those of people like Richard Flor, Montana medical marijuana provider who died in federal prison. They include the husband and wife defendants Dale Schafer (a hemophiliac) and Dr. Mollie Fry (a cancer patient). Not highlighted in the release, but on the list, is my friend Bryan Epis, California's second medical marijuana defendant and the first to be convicted. Bryan is getting out soon, but he's spent too many years behind bars. There are many more, of course.

Some people argue that these people knowingly took a risk, violating federal law, and even if one disagrees with a law, it's the law and prosecutors are bound to uphold it. But that misses a basic ethical point, and a practical one. In practical terms, police and prosecutors have discretion to focus their resources on the cases of most importance to them. They also can choose not to prosecute, or make deals to let people out of prison time, no abuse of discretion being thereby committed. In many cases that's what happened.

And so in a situation such as this one -- states passing pro-medical marijuana laws, now even legalization laws, the Obama administration effectively encouraging people further by promising a more-or-less hands off approach to the issue, that clearly would have been the right approach for officials to take. If they felt (rightly or wrongly) that they had to shut down certain operations, the ethical approach, given all that came before, would have been to tell the people things have changed, they have to stop doing what they're doing or face prosecution, but giving them that chance. (The same idea applies to Marc Emery, whose business was accepted by authorities for nine years until they hit him with the years he's serving.)

Instead of doing that, in the many cases CANORML has highlighted, they instead let the parties go about their business for years, until they had the evidence compiled they would need to get the extremely harsh sentences they wanted. If these outlets were really harming the public, shouldn't they have moved to close them down as soon as they could instead? I thought the point of our laws was to protect the public, not to destroy the individuals targeted by the law.

Those are a few of the reasons it's an angry afternoon for me.

California Senate Passes Drug Defelonization Bill

The California Senate Thursday passed a bill that would give prosecutors the option of charging people caught in the possession of small amounts of hard drugs with misdemeanors instead of felonies. Senate Bill 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, now goes before the Assembly.

California prison overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
Introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the bill is designed to ameliorate California's ongoing over-incarceration crisis, reduce the burden of county corrections costs (counties are taking up the burden of imprisoning large numbers of people under the state's prison realignment plan), and increase the number of problem drug users entering drug treatment.

"One of the best ways to promote lower crime rates is to provide low-level offenders with the rehabilitation they need to successfully reenter their communities," said Leno. "However, our current laws do just the opposite. We give nonviolent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or opportunities to receive an education. SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals."

Thirteen other states already allow misdemeanor filings for hard drug possession, Leno said.

"In these 13 other states we can document that there is higher participation in drug treatment," Leno said. "As a result there is lower drug use. As a result, there is less violent and property crime in these 13 other states."

Leno sponsored similar legislation last year, but that measure required that hard drug possession be treated as misdemeanor. That led law enforcement to oppose it on the grounds that it removed leverage necessary to get drug users into treatment. This year's makes hard drug possession a "wobbler," meaning prosecutors could charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

"They need the hammer, the threat of a felony, to make sure certain people go into treatment," Leno explained.

Despite the partial retreat, this year's legislation was again supported by the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance.

"We commend the Senate for approving this bill at a time when lasting, sustainable and common sense solutions to California's ongoing incarceration crisis are so needed," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California. "This bill will help counties break the state's addiction to incarceration by enabling them to invest their limited resources in the community-based treatment, rehabilitation and education programs proven to reduce recidivism, prevent crime and increase public safety."

But not everybody supported the legislation, which passed on a 23-14 vote. Three Democrats joined 11 Republicans in voting against the bill. Some of those opponents had old-school solutions instead.

Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) noted that people can already go into drug treatment instead of jail under Proposition 36. He said the solution was to build more jails and prisons.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Boulder DA Stops Marijuana Possession Prosecutions

The district attorney in Colorado's Boulder County announced Wednesday he will dismiss all pending small-time marijuana and paraphernalia possession cases, saying that given overwhelming support for Amendment 64 in Boulder County he would be hard pressed to find a jury to convict.

Boulder County DA Stan Garnett (bouldercounty.da.gov)
"You've seen an end to mere possession cases in Boulder County under my office," DA Stan Garnett told the University of Colorado student newspaper the Daily Camera. "It was an ethical decision," Garnett said. "The standard for beginning or continuing criminal prosecution is whether a prosecutor has reasonable belief they can get a unanimous conviction by a jury. Given Amendment 64 passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin (in Boulder County), we concluded that it would be inappropriate for us to continue to prosecute simple possession of marijuana less than an ounce and paraphernalia for those over 21."

While Amendment 64 will not go into effect most likely until sometime in January, Garnett said the high level of support for the measure in the county convinced him to begin dropping cases.

"We were already having trouble sitting a jury anyway," Garnett said. "That overwhelming vote total, that's where we get our juries from."

Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner told the Daily Camera that his department would now stop issuing tickets or making arrests for mere marijuana possession of less than an ounce and paraphernalia.

"We will not be issuing any summonses for the offenses cited by the Boulder DA," Beckner said. "We had already told our officers it was a waste of time to issue summonses for those offenses anyway, given the passage of the amendment. We are in a wait and see mode on how the state will regulate sales and possibly use in public places."

Garnett's stance came the same day Amendment 64 proponents called on other prosecutors, particularly Denver DA Mitch Morrisey, to follow his lead.

"A strong majority of Coloradans made it clear that they do not believe adults should be made criminals for possessing small amounts of marijuana," said Mason Tvert, a proponent of Amendment 64. "Colorado prosecutors can follow the will of the voters by dropping these cases today and announcing they are no longer taking on new ones. We applaud District Attorney Garnett for respecting the will of the voters, and we hope his colleagues across the state will follow his lead," Tvert said. "We do not see why District Attorney Morrissey or any other prosecutor would want to continue seeking criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal in the next month or so."

Prosecutors in some Washington counties, where marijuana legalization also passed, have also dropped pending pot possession prosecutions.

Boulder, CO
United States

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