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Maine Police Chief Wants Cocaine Misdemeanors to Be Felonies

Portland, Maine, Police Chief James Craig is pushing to increase some crack and powder cocaine offenses from misdemeanors to felonies, but he isn't exactly receiving a warm reception from lawmakers concerned about prison overcrowding. He told the Portland Press Herald Tuesday that he plans to meet with other police chiefs, prosecutors, and legislators to plot his brave push backward into the 20th Century.

Looking Backwards: Portland Police Chief James Craig
Under Maine law, first time possession of up to four grams of crack and 14 grams of powder cocaine is a misdemeanor. A second offense is a felony, as is possession of more than those amounts.

"Crack cocaine breeds violence," Craig said. "Crack cocaine will destroy this community if we don't stay ahead of it."

He cited recent incidents in the city that he attributed to cocaine users. He said three home invasions, three robberies, and a stabbing in a recent one-week period were committed by coked-out individuals.

Rep. Anne Haskell (D-Portland), co-chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, told the Press Herald she would listen to Craig's proposal, but expressed concern about costs.

"I'd be glad to have a conversation with Chief Craig and take a look at the kinds of things he's seeing. He's the person on the ground," she said. "If what he's seeing out there is what's happening, then folks ought to be held accountable, but we would have to find the money to do that," she said.

But Sen. Stan Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick), the committee's senate chair, was more wary. "We're not going to start enhancing some of these crimes to fill up our prisons more than we have now," he said. "The legislature was very good at enhancing crimes and the time served, and we got ourselves in a pretty good mess."

Times have changed when cops looking for longer sentences for drug users are met by skepticism in the legislature.

Portland, ME
United States

Despite Decrim, California Marijuana Possession Busts Abound [FEATURE]

According to figures from the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, more than 550,000 people were charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in the Golden State between 1999 and 2009. Last year, 61,164 people were charged with pot possession, down slightly from 2008's record 61,388.

The number of small-time pot arrests hovered at around 50,000 a year for most of the decade. But in 2007, it jumped to just under 60,000, and crossed that threshold in 2008.

That could change this year, though. A bill, SB 1449, approved by the state legislature last week would change the misdemeanor to a civil infraction. It awaits action on Gov. Schwarzenegger's desk. The Proposition 19 marijuana legalization initiative would allow people 21 or over to possess up to an ounce without fear of arrest and grow up to 25 square feet. It goes before the voters on November 2.

That wouldn't be a minute too soon, for some.  "It's morally offensive that in a state like California, where a majority of Californians favor outright legalization and where as far back as 1977 they thought they had it decriminalized, the law enforcement community continues to ignore the will of the citizens of the state," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"This is just another example of why we need to end marijuana prohibition and why we hope California voters will pass Proposition 19 this November," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We're criminalizing people and turning their lives upside down simply for using a substance that's safer than alcohol. It's also a huge misallocation of law enforcement resources. Even if they're not going to jail, these busts are still taking up police officers' time and clogging up the court system. This is all the more reason I hope voters really flock to the polls in November."

Under California law, possession of up to an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable only by a maximum $100 fine for a first offense. But because it is a misdemeanor -- not a civil infraction -- you can be arrested, and each offense requires a court appearance, leading to costs for the criminal justice system, as well as costs and a criminal record -- at least temporarily -- for the arrestee.

"People are usually cited and released, but they could be arrested," said Omar Figueroa, a Sebastopol-based marijuana defense attorney. "The law says they can be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession, and they will be if they don't have satisfactory proof of ID or if they ask to go before a judge."

It varies from locality to locality, Figueroa said. "In Berkeley, they try to process them in traffic court, even though it's technically a misdemeanor. A lot depends on the cop's discretion."

People charged with a misdemeanor have the right to counsel and the right to a jury trial. Ironically, both Figueroa and Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML, said that exercising that right to trial could result in the charges being dropped.

"Some people have demanded jury trials," noted Gieringer, "and when you do that, you almost always find the charges getting dropped, because when the worst outcome is a $100 fine, it just isn't worth it."

"With the maximum sentence being a $100 fine, the system doesn't want to put out that much energy in picking a jury," said Figueroa, but don't count on it. "My first jury trial was pot possession misdemeanor in Los Angeles County. But if you're in San Francisco or Alameda County and you insist on your right to a jury trial, it will probably be dismissed."

Pleading guilty means a criminal record and all that entails, including collateral consequences like loss of access to public housing, but only for two years. Then, if you've managed to stay out of trouble, the conviction is expunged. But some judges push minor pot offenders into treatment, said Gieringer.

"Many judges railroad the defendants into not taking the misdemeanor plea, but instead doing a drug program, the advantage of which is that you have no conviction at all, but it's very expensive and time consuming," he said. 

Even having to show up for a court appearance can be burdensome, Gieringer said. "I know one UCLA student who had to go to Arcata [600 miles away] for a court appearance. It's also an inconvenience for the court. It's got to cost well over $100 for the state to assemble all the manpower for a pot misdemeanor hearing, and with 60,000 cases, that's $6 million wasted right there."

"It would be good to see that decrim bill signed into law or Prop 19 pass," said Stroup. "Or both," he laughed.

"Back when we did the decrim bill in the 1976, the district attorneys said it had to remain a criminal offense," said Gieringer. "The bill now pending would abolish that status. If Schwarzenegger can't sign this current decrim bill, there is something really sick in California politics." Gieringer laughed ruefully, adding, "Of course, we know there is something really sick in California politics."

"This same decriminalization proposal was defeated here three times in the past," said Gieringer. "I think its passage this year is an indication that you can get lawmakers to reduce penalties as a cost-cutting measure. The reason it passed this time was the budget crisis -- even the prosecutors and the courts supported the bill on the grounds of cutting costs."

That's just misdemeanor pot possession. An additional 135,000 people have been arrested on felony marijuana cultivation or distribution charges in the past decade. For all drug felonies, that figure rises to 1.4 million over the past decade.

An additional 850,000 arrests were made for non-marijuana drug misdemeanors. These are typically possession of personal use amounts of hashish, non-opiate prescription medications, and similar drugs on Schedules III, IV, and V of the state drug law, which can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. Figueroa called such charges "wobblers," since they can be charged either way.

While last year's 78,514 marijuana arrests (felonies and misdemeanors) is an all-time high, arrests for other drug offenses are declining. Narcotics (heroin and cocaine) felony arrests peaked at more than 56,000 in 2007, but declined to just under 44,000 last year, while dangerous drug felony arrests have declined by half since peaking at nearly 93,000 in 2005.

The huge number of drug arrests in general and marijuana arrests in particular come as the state is experiencing its lowest crime levels in three decades and a skyrocketing criminal justice system budget. In 1968, total criminal justice system (law enforcement, corrections, courts, prosecutors, public defenders) were at about $100 million, by 1984, when crime rates had already begun falling, the criminal justice budget was at about $5 billion. Last year, it was about $33 billion, mostly for police ($17 billion) and prisons ($15 billion).

Passage of Prop 19 or the signing of the decriminalization bill could begin to rein in the California criminal justice juggernaut, but that would just be a start. Still, you have to start somewhere. Real decrim would be good, but if California votes for legalization, it will be a political earthquake.

CA
United States

Republican Gubernatorial Candidate Moffett Goes on Record Supporting Industrial Hemp

Location: 
KY
United States
Phil Moffett said Friday he's willing to "go to the carpet" to legalize the production of industrial hemp in Kentucky. The Louisville businessman voiced support for industrial hemp in a question and answer session with libertarian voters in Lexington on Thursday and again Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Publication/Source: 
Bloomberg (NY)
URL: 
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9I0LRS00.htm

Mississippi Governor Signs Bill Banning Synthetic Marijuana

Location: 
MS
United States
Gov. Haley Barbour on Friday signed a bill immediately banning the sale and possession of the herbal mixture known by names such as Spice, K2, Demon, Voodoo, Genie and Zohai.
Publication/Source: 
Bloomberg (NY)
URL: 
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9I0K2280.htm

Michigan Court Keeps Detroit Marijuana Initiative Off Ballot

In an August 26 ruling, the Wayne County Circuit Court refused to order the Detroit city clerk to put a municipal marijuana legalization initiative on the November ballot. Initiative organizers, the Coalition for a Safer Detroit had gathered sufficient valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but in a surprise move earlier this month, the city's Election Commission removed the measure from the ballot, saying it was preempted by state law.

Comerica Park, Detroit (wikimedia.org)
The Coalition for a Safer Detroit is now considering an appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals. But with election day little more than two months away, there are questions about whether a decision would come quickly enough to get the measure back on the ballot in time.

The Wayne County Circuit Court took and decided the case on an expedited basis. It is not clear whether the appeals court could or would also do so.

The initiative would have legalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana on private property for people 21 or older. It would have done so by simply removing all references to simple marijuana possession by adults from the city code.

The coalition handed in more than 6,000 voter signatures earlier this year, and the initiative was approved by the same Detroit Election Commission that killed it August 9. After it was approved, in accordance with city law, the initiative went before the Detroit City Council, which could have voted to make the initiative law. By failing to vote on the initiative, the Council cleared the way for the voters to make their preferences known in November -- or so everyone thought.

But the Election Commission voted 3-0 to remove the measure from the ballot. The surprise move came after Detroit Corporation Counsel and commission member Krystal Crittenden told the commission that in the opinion of the city's law department, which she oversees, state law forbidding marijuana possession preempted the measure.

Detroit, MI
United States

Gov. Bill Ritter Turns to Medical Marijuana Fund to Help Balance Colorado Budget

Location: 
CO
United States
The plan Ritter announced to bridge a nearly $60 million shortfall in the current budget year relies on $9 million from the state's Medical Marijuana Program Cash Fund, financed by fees on patients who get cards to use medical marijuana. With the number of applicants for medical marijuana cards expected to double to 150,000 this year, there will still be about $1 million left in the fund even after $9 million is swept from it.
Publication/Source: 
The Denver Post (CO)
URL: 
http://www.denverpost.com/legislature/ci_15873063

Cop Cleared in Killing of Unarmed Man in Marijuana Raid

The Las Vegas police officer who shot an unarmed Trevon Cole during a June drug raid over small-time marijuana sales was justified, a coroner's inquest found Saturday night. The ruling came late in the evening after an inquest that was supposed to end Friday dragged through the day and into the night Saturday. (See our recent coverage of the case here and of a looming lawsuit over the killing here.)

Trevon Cole and his fiance Sequoia Pearce, nine
months pregnant at time of shooting
Of about 200 Clark County coroner's inquests in officer-involved killings since 1976, only one has resulted in a finding of criminal negligence. Whether that near-perfect percentage of acquittals results from exceptionally good police work in Las Vegas, or an inadequate process and institution, depends on who one asks.

Cole, 21, and his pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were at the apartment they shared when police serving a search warrant burst through their door. Cole was shot in the bathroom by Det. Bryan Yant, who, in testimony Saturday afternoon, said he kicked in the bathroom door and saw Cole squatting by the toilet, apparently flushing marijuana. He said Cole rose to his feet while moving his hands in a shooting motion and that he saw something silvery or metallic in Cole's hand. He then fired once, killing Cole.

"Unfortunately, he made an aggressive act toward me," said Yant under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Chris Owens. "He made me do my job."

Owens questioned Yant sharply at times, suggesting that Yant's weapon had accidentally discharged as he came through the door. Owens cited the position of Cole's body on the floor and the downward trajectory of the bullet as it entered his cheek before lodging in his neck, which suggested that Cole was still kneeling when shot.

No gun or other silvery or metallic objects were found in the bathroom. But clutched in one of Cole's hands was a yellow tube of lip balm.

The inquest also heard testimony about errors in the search warrant application written by Det. Yant, in which he misidentified Cole as another Trevon Cole -- from a different city, with a different date of birth, different middle initial, and a dramatically different physical description. Yant also mischaracterized the other Trevon Cole's police record as including drug trafficking offenses, when all that came up was some possession misdemeanors.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Laurent asked Sgt. John Harney, who led the team conducting the raid, if he agreed that Yant's work on the affidavit was "sloppy," but Harney said, "No, it was a mistake."

Immediately after the verdict was announced, Clark County Sheriff Douglas Gillespie issued a statement saying that the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's internal investigation continues and that until it is completed, the department's SWAT team, "which trains regularly and is well-suited for high-risk operations," will be handling all forced entry search warrants.

"The Department will examine the narcotics investigation; supervision that led to the identification of Mr. Cole as a suspected narcotics dealer; all related policies and procedures pertaining to the writing and serving of the search warrant; and the decisions made by officers assigned to this incident," the statement said. "The results of Metro’s internal investigation, and any recommended policy changes, will be made public."

In the meantime, the family of Trevon Cole is preparing a lawsuit alleging wrongful death, civil rights violations, and possibly a RICO claim. Talk is cheap; paying for questionable police killings is not.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

Raid Victim Family May Hit Vegas Police with RICO Suit

(This article includes minor updates from the original version published 8/19/10.)

Andre Lagomarsino, the attorney representing the estate of Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, said last Thursday he is considering a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) lawsuit against the Las Vegas Police Metropolitan Department in the shooting death of Cole in a June drug raid at the apartment shared by Cole and Pearce. In addition to a possible RICO claim, the lawsuit would assert wrongful death, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It would also assert civil rights violations.

Trevon Cole
"We are considering a RICO claim," Lagomarsino told the Chronicle. "The claim would say there is a pattern of criminal conduct by this organization. A similar claim was brought against the LAPD. It only takes two events to constitute a pattern under RICO," he said.

There is already one other questionable police shooting that could be the second event. Last month, Las Vegas police shot and killed Erik Scott, 39, outside a Costco store in Summerlin. There have been five officer-involved shootings in the city so far this summer and 17 this year, though Cole and Scott were the only fatalities among them.

Though best known for its criminal provisions targeting certain criminal enterprises with asset forfeiture and up to 20-year sentences per racketeering count, the RICO statute also has a provision allowing for civil lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming to have been harmed by those enterprises. Successful plaintiffs can collect treble damages.

Cole was fatally wounded by Detective Brian Yant as he and other officers executed a search warrant alleging that Cole had sold 1.8 ounces of marijuana to undercover officers in three buys over a series of week. Cole was unarmed. Yant said he shot after Cole made "a furtive movement," but Pearce, who was present during the raid, said Cole was on his knees with his hands raised and complying with commands when he was shot.

Yant has been involved in two other questionable shootings, one of them fatal. In that incident, Yant said the victim was threatening him with a gun, but the gun was found 35 feet away from the victim's body.

Yant also misidentified Cole as another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas, despite the two men having different dates of birth, middle initials, ages, and appearances. He also mischaracterized the record of the Houston Trevon Cole, portraying him in the search warrant affidavit as a major drug dealer when his only arrests were marijuana possession misdemeanors. (See more detailed coverage of the raid and its aftermath here.)

When there is a police-involved fatal shooting in Las Vegas, it goes before a coroner's inquest to determine whether the officer involved was criminally negligent. That happened on Friday and Saturday, with the coroner's jury coming back with a verdict of "justifiable" on the shooting. The finding was not unanticipated, especially given the history of coroner's inquests there (only one police officer has been found criminally negligent in about 200 inquests since 1976, and that verdict was later overturned) and the one-sided nature of the inquest process (only the district attorney can present evidence and ask questions), it is considered unlikely that Yant will be found criminally negligent.

"I would guess they will find it justified, but I'm hopeful they will look at the fact that [Cole] had nothing in his hands," Lagomarsino said the day before the inquest began.

While Lagomarsino also cited Yant's history of shootings "under suspicious circumstances," he pointed a finger at the police department too. "This is cleared at higher levels," he said. "It is the policy and procedure of the Metro police to conduct these raids the way they do."

The Las Vegas attorney told the Chronicle last week that once the inquest was over he would file a lawsuit "within two or three weeks." He told local media Monday the lawsuit will now move forward, although he did not outline its precise shape.

Las Vegas, NV
United States

California Appeals Court in Split Decision on Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

In a long-anticipated but now somewhat anticlimactic ruling, the California Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana on Wednesday decided not to decide whether localities can ban medical marijuana dispensaries, sending the case back to Orange County Superior Court for further hearings. The court did, however, reverse a lower court's ruling that federal law preempts state law.

The case, Qualified Patients Association (QPA) v. City of Anaheim, deals with an Anaheim ordinance that makes operating or working at a dispensary a misdemeanor criminal offense, but could also affect numerous other localities that have banned dispensaries. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which filed an amicus brief in the case, has identified 133 California localities with bans in place.

QPA had opened five months before Anaheim enacted its ban and sued shortly thereafter, arguing that the state's Compassionate Use Act (CUA) and Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) blocked localities from banning dispensaries. They lost in Orange County Superior Court in 2008, with the judge holding that federal drug law preempted the state's medical marijuana laws.

No, it doesn't, the appeals court held in a unanimous decision. "We agree with plaintiffs the trial court erred as a matter of law in concluding federal regulation of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act preempted California's decision in the CUA and the MMPA to decriminalize specific medical marijuana activities under state law. We therefore reverse the judgment of dismissal and remand the matter to allow plaintiffs to pursue their declaratory judgment cause of action," said the opinion authored by Judge Richard Aronson. The court also wondered how "a city may criminalize as a misdemeanor a particular use of property the state expressly has exempted from 'criminal liability,'" as it does in the MMPA.

Still, ASA chief counsel Joe Elford, author of the brief mentioned above and who argued the case before the appeals court last September, wasn't exactly jumping for joy. He wanted the issue settled once and for all.

"While we understand the difficult nature of deciding this issue, the court's ruling delays a decision that will affect thousands of patients who remain without access to their medication because of hostile jurisdictions," he said. "The silver lining to this decision is that the court has reinstated the lawsuit and is providing the plaintiffs the opportunity to prove that dispensary bans are illegal under state law."

In addition to the plaintiffs and defendants, the case pitted medical marijuana advocates against law enforcement associations and the governments of 33 cities. Those associations and city governments all filed briefs opposing the appeal.

"We will continue to fight for the right of patients to access medical marijuana through medical marijuana dispensaries, which is provided for by the Medical Marijuana Program Act, previous case law and guidelines issued by the California Attorney General," continued Elford. "Whether or not the Anaheim case is brought before this court again, this issue will eventually be reheard and we are confident of the eventual outcome."

Santa Ana, CA
United States

Texas Now Prosecuting TWO Medical Marijuana Patients [FEATURE]

Asthmatic medical marijuana patient Chris Diaz sits in jail in Brownwood, Texas, facing up to life in prison for a half ounce of marijuana and three grams of hash. Quadraplegic medical marijuana patient Chris Cain may be joining Diaz behind bars in Beaumont, Texas, after he goes to trial next week. When it comes to medical marijuana, Texas isn't California (or even Rhode Island), and don't you forget it, boy!

seat of injustice
Chris Diaz is learning that the hard way. He was supposedly pulled over for an expired license tag (his defenders say the tag was not expired) while en route from Amarillo to Austin, and according to the DPS trooper's report, would not produce a drivers' license or proof of insurance. He was then arrested for failure to identify, and during a subsequent search, police found a small amount of hashish on his person. A search of the vehicle then turned up additional hash and marijuana in a pill bottle from a California medical marijuana provider. Now, Diaz is facing up to life in prison after being indicted by a Brown County grand jury. He is charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, a first-degree felony in the Lone Star State.

Under Texas law, possession of less than two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, while possession of hashish is either a state jail felony punishable by up to two years for less than a gram, or a second-class felony punishable by up to 20 years if less than four grams, although probation is also possible.

But because police allegedly read a text message on Diaz's seized cell phone advising a friend that he had some great hash and asking if he wanted any, he was instead indicted on the trafficking charge, punishable by up to life in prison. He remains behind bars -- without his medicine -- on a $40,000 cash bond.

Diaz was diagnosed with asthma just before he turned three, his mother, Rhonda Martin said. "He was on medications ever since. He used a nebulizer, all kinds of inhalers, Albuteral, Advair. He stopped taking them when he was 14 because he didn't like the effects," she recalled. "He said the steroids made him feel agitated and wouldn't take those chemical medications anymore."

While the family was aware of medical marijuana, it was only when Diaz fell ill during a family vacation in California and was hospitalized in intensive care that they first learned about medical marijuana for the treatment of asthma. "We were put in touch with a doctor there, and he recommended it. It was his recommendation Chris was carrying," said Martin.

Neither Brown County prosecutors nor Diaz's court-appointed public defender had responded to Chronicle requests for comment by press time.

Diaz and some of his strongest supporters, including his mother, consider themselves "sovereign citizens," and have a web site, I Am Sovereign, in which they argue their case and attempt to win support for Diaz. But that set of beliefs, which precludes carrying government-issued identification, is also complicating things for Diaz. "Failure to identify" was the first charge he faced, and he was searched and the cannabis was found subsequent to being charged with that. Similarly, the authorities' lack of any records or ID for Diaz played a role in the setting of the high bail.

He's not having an easy time of it in jail, said Martin. "He is not receiving any medical attention. He eats only organic food, but he's not getting that. He was assaulted last Sunday by a jailer when he asked for medication. The jailer got in his face and started screaming and pushing him. Chris didn't react. He is a peaceful man."

"The reality is that this kid is in jail for having medical marijuana and is looking at life in prison," said Stephen Betzen, director of the Texas Coalition for Compassionate Care, which is lobbying for a medical marijuana bill next year in the state legislature. "You've got to be kidding me. You don't give drug addicts life in prison, so why would you do that to a patient with a legitimate recommendation from another state?"

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/chris-cain.jpg
Chris Cain
Betzen also had real issues with Diaz being stopped in the first place. "The fact of the matter is that Chris was driving home to Austin with legal plates," he said. "The cops lied and said they were expired. Not only did they lie to pull him over, they took a kid with no record and charged him with a life sentence offense for three grams of hash. The people who are perpetrating this need to be brought to justice and their victims need to be released from jail," said Betzen. "You can't just pull people over because they're brown or from California and begin to search them. There's a whole amendment about that."

"I'm surprised somebody is facing a life sentence for basically half an ounce," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana support group Americans for Safe Access. "But in states that don't have medical marijuana laws, authorities are free to arrest and prosecute regardless of whether it is being used medicinally."

Meanwhile, over in Hardin County in East Texas, Chris Cain, 39, will be rolling his wheelchair to court next week, where the quadriplegic faces a jail sentence for possessing less than two ounces of medical marijuana. Cain, who was paralyzed in a diving accident as a teenager, has been an outspoken medical marijuana advocate for a decade.

He was arrested in 2005 when the Hardin County Sheriff's Office raided his home with the assistance of two helicopters, seized three joints, and threw him in jail. He wound up on probation, but could not use his medicine.

"Within six weeks, the spasticity was so bad he was developing bed sores," said Betzen, so he started using again. "The cops would come by every two weeks to see if he was healthy enough to go to jail."

Now, he faces trial again for possession. "They actually want to put him in jail," exclaimed Betzen. "The sheriff there really has a vendetta against him."

While Texas certainly needs to enter the 21st Century when it comes to medical marijuana, the problem is larger than the Lone Star State, said Hermes. "It's critical that we develop a federal medical marijuana law so that people are not treated differently in Texas than in California, and patients who need this medicine in Texas should be allowed to use it with fear of arrest and prosecution. Americans for Safe Access is committed not only to encouraging states to pass medical marijuana laws irrespective of federal policy, but also to push the federal government to develop a policy that will treat patients equitably no matter where in the US they live."

TX
United States

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