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Tennessee Cops Kill Man in Meth Lab Raid

Sullivan County sheriff's deputies shot and killed a man attempting to flee in a vehicle Friday night as they conducted a raid on a residence where a meth lab was suspected to be operating. Kenneth Ray Clark, 47, becomes the 33rd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Bristol Times-News, citing police sources, officers with the Sheriff's Office Vice Unit, the 1st Judicial Drug Task Force, and the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force were dispatched to a Bristol residence after receiving information that a meth lab was operating there and that a person with outstanding warrants was there.

Upon arriving at the property, officers found Clark in a vehicle. Police said he refused to get out of the vehicle and, in an attempt to flee the scene, "tried to run over at least two officers." Officers then opened fire on the vehicle, striking Clark. Clark managed to drive approximately a mile, where police found him dead in his vehicle.

Clark was wanted on a probation violation warrant in Sullivan County. He also reportedly had an unspecified outstanding warrant from nearby Bristol, Virginia.

Although Clark allegedly "tried to run over at least two officers," there was no mention of any injury to any of the officers involved.

The shooting will be investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Bristol, TN
United States

The Fall and Rise and Fall of a "Death to Meth" DA [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com. This is the 7th installment of Walker's series on prosecutorial misconduct in the war on drugs.

A Northern California attorney plunged into a full-blown methamphetamine addiction, then made a storybook recovery, running successfully for county prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform just a few years later. But now that attorney, Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander, is on the ropes again, and it's not the drug itself but a different aspect of his meth mania that's doing him in.

Alexander fought back like Rocky Balboa, only to be defeated by himself.
Inspired by a burning passion to fight the meth industry in the county and to help meth users who reminded him of himself, Alexander ran as a big underdog on a "Death to Meth" platform. On the road to victory with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" booming in the background, Alexander won strong support from law-abiding citizens, sheriff's deputies, judges, and even families of drug dealers and drug users that Alexander previously represented either as a solo defense attorney or public defender. And in a strange way many drug dealers he sent to prison as a former prosecutor threw their support behind him as well.

"With meth, it's personal to me. I've been there. I know meth is a horrendously powerful drug. I've been to hell and back," a triumphant Alexander declaimed after winning the prosecutor's job. A former New Jersey resident, Alexander graduated in 1987 from Western State University College of Law in Orange County, California.

Like a former smoker turned anti-smoking zealot, Alexander turned his personal campaign against meth into a crusade. For nearly three years, he participated in "Meth Elimination" raids carried out by the sheriff's office and hammered meth dealers as the DA.

But now, the 63-year-old lawyer's enthusiasm has gotten the best of him, and the Northern California DA finds himself in trouble with the law again. It just another turn of the page in the real-life legal thriller that is the career of Jon Alexander.

Back in April, the State Bar of California recommended that Alexander, who had previously been disciplined for prosecutorial misconduct, be disbarred for interfering in a drug case. Although the judge in the case issued an order recommending Alexander's "right to practice" law be transferred to involuntary inactive status, the final decision to disbar the DA is up to the California Supreme Court.

To add insult to injury, the "miracle comeback lawyer" was served with a letter from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors ordering him suspended without pay as a sheriff's sergeant unceremoniously escorted him from his office. He has been replaced temporarily by assistant prosecutor Katherine Micks as he exhausts his appeals.

Alexander went down over his interference in a meth case involving a female defendant, 24-year-old Michelle Taylor. Taylor met with Alexander in his office and told him that meth seized in a recent bust belonged to her and not her boyfriend, Damion Van Parks, who had been arrested with her and charged as a codefendant. The bar found that he had questioned her without her attorney present, that he failed to provide exculpatory evidence in a related case, and that he lied to his fellow prosecutors.

"Jon Alexander, reportedly the state's first sitting prosecutor to face removal from office, abused his prosecutorial power by communicating with Michelle Taylor, charged at the time, with methamphetamine possession," State Bar Court Judge Lucy Armendariz ruled. But there's more: "After Alexander learned from Taylor that she, not her co-defendant Van Parks, owned the illegal drugs, Alexander failed to disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defendant's lawyer."

And still more. Judge Armendariz found that Alexander had lied to Assistant DA Micks, who was in charge of prosecuting the case, by telling her he had not spoken with the female defendant. But it gets worse.

When the accusations against him emerged, Alexander fired back, claiming he recalled that Taylor's attorney had given him permission to speak to her about seeking drug treatment. But, unknown to Alexander, Taylor had been wearing a wire, and on the recording of their meeting, there is no mention of her going to rehab.

Judge Lucy Armendariz (tjsl.edu)
"Michelle Taylor was denied basic protections under the Sixth Amendment when Alexander elicited information from her without her counsel," Judge Armendariz found.

Taylor refused to testify at Alexander's October 2012 State Bar trial unless she was granted immunity in her pending meth case. That didn't happen. Instead, she was eventually convicted and sentenced to a year in prison while the case against Van Parks was dropped.

Alexander had support during his State Bar trial, with numerous members of Del Norte County legal and law enforcement communities testifying to his good reputation as an elected DA. While he may have had shortcoming and might have committed some errors, they said, none of his misdeeds warranted criminal actions. But not everyone rallied to Alexander's support.

"I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be DA because I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long-time meth use, even though he appears sober now," argued State Bar Deputy trial counselor Cydney Batchelor,

Although he has been recommended for disbarment by the State Bar for misconduct and at least temporarily removed from office, Alexander hasn't given up the fight. In addition to appealing the State Bar decision, he is also challenging the county Board of Supervisors' decision to suspend him without pay.

"I am the elected District Attorney of this county; I still believe I am," Alexander said in August.

He has hired Sacramento attorney Rudy Nolen, who has filed an appeal of the State Bar Court's decision to disbar him. Nolen is also challenging the county supervisors' decision to suspend Alexander, arguing that the board "acted out of its scope of jurisdiction on a number of grounds" when it suspended the befallen prosecutor, and violated his rights in the process.

"It did not have authority to fire Alexander because a sitting District Attorney is subject to removal only by Attorney General Office or by way of recall election or a grand jury accusation," Nolen argued. "The board did not provide Mr. Alexander with prior notice of planned actions and the board failed to provide Alexander with an open hearing or an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations."

"I continue to believe that the actions taken by the board were outside of their authority, which was, to me, an illegal attempt to remove Jon from his position," he told the Chronicle.

In his October 2012 lawsuit against the State Bar, Alexander's attorney claimed that "the accusations against him were not only politically motivated by fellow lawyers and DAs, whom he called enemies, but the accusations also were driven by incorrect factual allegations and bias against a former meth addict."

"My opponents are subjecting me to additional scrutiny and criticism because of my former drug addiction," Alexander argued.

It wasn't Alexander's recovery status, but his prosecutorial misconduct that did him in, though, Judge Armendariz held.

"Jon Alexander knew or should have known, as an experienced prosecutor, that there's no excuse for conversing with a defendant in the absence of retained counsel, regardless of whether she barged into his office and voluntarily made several incriminating statements during their conversation," she wrote in her decision to disbar him.

One disgruntled attorney is former Del Norte Prosecutor Michael Riese, who gave Alexander a chance to work as a prosecutor in his office based on his excellent skillls as a trial lawyer. Alexander was fired from the DA office by Riese for improper behavior. But Alexander later rebounded to defeat Riese for the top spot. Riese filed a lawsuit against Alexander in July 2012, accusing him of malicious prosecution for allegedly trying to frame him for child endangerment and DUI. Both charges against Riese were later dismissed.

The Downward Spiral

Before Alexander won election as Del Norte County District Attorney, his dalliance with methamphetamine almost killed him. Burdened with emotional strain over the declining health of his parents and running a busy law practice, Alexander first used cocaine and then switched to snorting meth.

"I was doing meth to keep my practice going. I did meth while cranking out a bunch of work, then did some more to stay up. Then after a couple of days straight I took Ambien to sleep," he recalled in an interview with California Lawyer magazine. "Around 2000, I graduated to smoking meth," Alexander recounted. "If you think snorting meth gets its claws in you, then smoking it completely puts your head in the dragon's throat."

After losing a beautiful oceanfront home in 2002, expensive sports car, a loving girlfriend, and a thriving law practice due to a long-term suspension over fees owed to a client, police threw him in jail for driving while his license was suspended. Out of jail, but now broke and homeless, Alexander continued to find solace in meth.

He lived out of his car or in shelters before eventually winding up crashing beneath the crawl space of a friend's house in Laguna Beach, where he slept on a stained, filthy mattress. In a sad reminder of his lost career, Alexander kept his Italian suits wrapped in garbage bags hanging from a rusty pipe in the crawl space. As the world around him spun out of control, Alexander became so despondent that he jammed a .32 pistol in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger to end his brutal dependency on meth.

"I can still remember the metallic taste of the gun in my mouth," Alexander said.

What stopped him from committing suicide was his mother's dog, Prince, whom he kept as companion. Slowly he put the gun down, feeling obligated to fulfill the promise he made to his ailing mother to take care of Prince.

Then Alexander had a close brush with death at the hands of others. On a mission to score more meth, he was attacked at a motel, struck in the head and knocked unconscious. Alexander suffered a broken neck, requiring a steel rod and transplanted disc to hold him together.

"I didn't have the good sense to die," Alexander told the Sacramento Bee.

This violent episode convinced Alexander to make a decision: live or die. Never a quitter, and with the heart of a prizefighter, Jon Alexander dusted himself off, prayed hard, and regained the right to practice law again in December 2004 -- after completing the State Bar substance abuse program. To stay sober and busy, Alexander sponsored a Little League Team, led a weekly 12-step drug program and served as keynote speaker at the County Drug Summit. Serving as mentor for recovering addicts at Jordan's Recovery Center in nearby Crescent City, the residents there adored him as the "comeback lawyer" and a true friend.

"When these guys come to Jon, no matter how beat down they are, he always finds a way to build them up," Sandra Morrison, the facility administrator, told California Law.

Bouncing Back, Breaking Bad

In January 2005, then Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese hired Alexander as Assistant DA to give the former meth addict another shot at redemption as a public servant. It wasn't long before Alexander got into hot water, though. In June 2005, Alexander wrote a personal letter to a judge urging him to give a stiff prison term to a meth dealer who, ironically, had been previously represented by Alexander when he worked as a public defender for the county. The judge reported Alexander's improper behavior not only to the defendant's lawyer, but also his boss, DA Riese.

"I'm guilty of bad judgment, arrogance and overstepping my bounds," a contrite Alexander wrote in a letter of apology to DA Riese.

Unimpressed, Riese fired Alexander, and he found himself suspended once again by the State Bar, this time for three months. Reinstated to practice after 90 days, like the Energizer bunny, Alexander bounced back with a vengeance, running against Riese for the DA's post in 2006. He lost the race, but not his mission.

In 2010, Alexander tried again, accusing Riese of corruption and investing his life savings of nearly $100,000 in his "Death to Meth" campaign. He won, by 196 votes out of 10,000 cast.

And now, thanks to his misconduct, he's out again, but he's still vowing war on meth.

"Meth is ravaging this country and I intend to fulfill and deliver on those campaign promises, and I look forward to returning to those duties," he said.

Joe Alexander, a former meth addict, turned his life around, becoming the county's top prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform. But while he managed to kick the drug, he hasn't been able to kick his need to bend the rules to go after it.

Although Alexander's saga appears to be winding to a close, it's not quite over yet. In July, Del Norte County rejected his petition to reinstate his salary while his appeals conclude. And next week, he has a hearing on his request that the State Bar consider reversing Judge Armendariz's recommendation that he be disbarred. But for the time being, at least, the "Death to Meth" prosecutor is on the outside looking in.

Crescent City, CA
United States

California Cops Gun Down Unarmed Meth Dealer

Undercover police in Sunnyvale, California, shot and killed an unarmed alleged methamphetamine dealer last Wednesday afternoon. Juan Ruelas, 34, becomes the 27th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to NBC Bay Area News, citing police spokesmen, Ruelas was being investigated by the Santa Clara County Specialized Crimes Action Team (SCAT) and members of a DEA drug task force, whose undercover officers had purchased meth from him several times over the past month. Police set up another buy Wednesday afternoon at a Hobee's restaurant in Sunnyvale, and an undercover officer had just purchased a pound of meth from him when the shooting occurred.

Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety Captain Dave Pitts said that after the deal went down, Ruelas suddenly threatened the officer and said he had a gun. Then, Pitts said, Ruelas "made a movement that led the officer to believe he was reaching for a gun." No fewer than six officers on the scene then opened on fire on Ruelas, mortally wounding him. He died later the same day in a local hospital.

No gun was found.

In an earlier NBC Bay Area News report, a manager at the Motel 6 next door to the restaurant provided a different account. He told reporters that it looked like a driver had been pulled over for a traffic violation. The manager, John Carroll, said officers were shouting at a person in the vehicle to get out of the car. When that person began to comply, police gunfire broke out, he said.

Ruelas' family wants to know what happened, members told ABC News 7. "Our question was, you know, 'Was he armed?'" said Ruelas' sister, Maria Bunker. "And he just told my brother, 'no, we never found a weapon.'"

Bunker also questioned the police narrative of events. "The pictures that we see all over the media, they show his truck being boxed in," Bunker said. "He had a stroke recently so it's like, he wasn't going to run from them."

Police spokesman Pitts said the shooters were five Santa Clara police detectives and a sheriff's detective. The shooting is being investigated by Sunnyvale public safety investigators, who will forward their findings to the county district attorney's office for review.

Sunnyvale, CA
United States

Iowa Federal Judge Criticizes Harsh Methamphetamine Sentences

A Sioux City-based US district court judge has criticized harsh tough methamphetamine sentencing guidelines, writing in a recent opinion that he considers them "fundamentally flawed," not based on empirical evidence, and too harsh for low-level offenders.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-mark-bennett.jpg
Judge Mark Bennett (iand.uscourts.gov)
US District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa cut the sentence of a convicted Sioux City methamphetamine dealer from nearly 16 years to just more than six years, saying in his 44-page ruling that he has a "fundamental policy disagreement" with the meth portion of the federal sentencing guidelines.

"The methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed because they fail to consider additional factors beyond quantity," Bennett wrote in his Friday ruling in US v. Willie Hayes. "The system is too severe in the indiscriminate way it treats offenders… Since the methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed, I find that they fail to promote the purposes of sentencing" outlined in federal law.

Bennett has been a long-time critic of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and in his ruling, he argued that meth sentencing guidelines seemed more based on politics than science and lacked the depth of other portions of the guidelines. Meth dealers are getting much harsher sentences than people convicted of selling heroin or cocaine, he noted.

Iowa defense attorneys consulted by the Des Moines Register said Bennett's ruling was "a very big deal."

"It is a very big deal, and it's also something that's been coming for awhile," said Des Moines defense attorney Angela Campbell. "And he's right. The guidelines are so high, you can have a runner or a very low-level pseudoephedrine (purchaser) who gets life very easily… If you're buying pseudoephedrine for a large-scale drug operation, you don't get hit just on what you buy, you’re responsible for the same thing as the entire conspiracy."

"He's not a lone voice in the wilderness," said Iowa defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown, who added that defense lawyers need to cite Bennett's opinion in meth cases. "It's an argument that defense lawyers in both the Northern and Southern districts of Iowa need to make," Brown said. "It's malpractice not to."

At least two other federal judges, Joseph Bataillon in Nebraska and John Gleeson in New York have issued similar criticisms of meth guidelines. Bennett's ruling drew on their reasoning.

Bennett, for his part, said reducing meth guideline sentences by a third was "a good starting point and a reasonable way to express my policy disagreement." But, he added, he "will reserve the ability to adjust the figure upwards and downwards as I weigh" other "important factors the guidelines do not contemplate."

Prosecutors could appeal Bennett's ruling in the Yates case. If they do, that could open the door to a decision by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in turn could open the door to a US Supreme Court review of sentencing procedure in the world of now-advisory guidelines, or even of the fairness of meth sentences.

Sioux City, IA
United States

China, Southeast Asia Vow More Better Drug War

At a meeting in Myanmar Thursday, China and five Southeast Asian nations vowed to redouble their efforts and boost cooperation in an effort to get a grip on illegal drug use and trafficking, which they called "a significant threat" to the region.

opium poppy (UNODC)
China was joined by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), for the Ministerial Meeting of the Signatory Countries to the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding on Drug Control in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

"Consumption and production of narcotic drugs continues to grow rapidly within the region and worldwide, constituting a significant threat to the East Asian region," according to a joint statement adopted at the meeting.

The countries and the UNODC pledged to heighten cross-border cooperation, examine alternative development programs, and share experiences in drug treatment, prevention, and public awareness.

"This agreement marks the continued commitment of the six MOU countries in supporting drug control in the region, and the celebration of 20 years of partnership and collaboration," said Myanmar representative Home Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Ko Ko at the signing ceremony. "The MOU Member States re-affirm our commitment and assure the international community of our efforts to eliminate the drug problem in our region."

Southeast Asia has been a hotbed of methamphetamine production in recent years, and Myanmar is now the world's second largest producer of opium -- although its production is only about one-tenth that of world leader Afghanistan.

"Major challenges persist," said John Sandage, UNODC director of treaty affairs. "The resurgence of opium poppy cultivation, the dramatic spread of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), the influx of drugs new to the region and increased levels of addiction. UNODC looks forward to working with the MOU states to implement plans that help us better understand the threat and challenges, build technical capacity and lead to greater cooperation across borders and among agencies."

Nay Pyi Taw
Myanmar

Sinaloa Cartel Dominates Meth Trade, Report Finds

Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel dominates the methamphetamine trade in the Asia-Pacific-Mexico-US area, controlling 80% of the market, according to a Mexican security report released this week.

"El Chapo" Guzman makes billions off drug prohibition.
The report, "Methamphetamine Traffic: Asia-Mexico-United States," by researcher Jose Luis León, was presented as part of the 2012 Security and Defense Atlas of Mexico (both are in Spanish), which was released this week. It estimates the Sinaloa Cartel's take from meth sales at about $3 billion a year.

The Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful, is headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the world's wealthiest criminals, as well as Mexico's most wanted fugitive. Guzman has eluded capture since escaping from a Mexican prison in 2001. The US Treasury Department considers Guzman the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.

The Sinaloa Cartel has been a leading actor in the prohibition-related violence that has plagued Mexico, especially since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006. At least 70,000 have been killed in the violence, much of which pits the Sinaloa Cartel against national-level competitors such as the Zetas, as well as against regionally-based rivals.

"The Sinaloa cartel is an authentic global enterprise since both their markets and products exhibit a high degree of diversification," León said in his report.

In addition to methamphetamine, the Sinaloa Cartel traffics cocaine, marijuana, and opiates throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. It also purchases precursor chemicals from China, India, and Thailand, which in uses in drug production laboratories hidden away in the cartel's Western Mexican heartland.

Mexico City
Mexico

Colombia Set to Decriminalize Ecstasy, Meth

Colombian Minister for Justice and Law Ruth Stella Correa said last Wednesday that the government will propose decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, according to local press accounts. She added that a drug policy advisory commission would revise the country's drug law and present the proposal to congress.

Ecstasy tablets (wikimedia.org)
Correa's remarks came as she announced the formation of the advisory commission.

Currently in Colombia, people are not prosecuted for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. She said the proposal would extend that protection to users of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy.

"The proposal aims to standardize the amount of drugs already permitted, while also allowing an equivalent quantity of synthetic drugs," she said. "We have to accept that Colombia is a consumer country -- this is also our reality -- and being a consumer country, we can't just throw drug users in jail, but we must look after them. I don't see the risk in establishing a personal use amount of synthetic drugs, since we are only trying to clarify things to achieve treatment for addicts and users, not to send them to prison."

Colombian constitutional court rulings have established a right to possess personal use amounts of drugs, but the government has not established what those personal use amounts of synthetic drugs are. The advisory commission will do that. The government of President Santos has also embarked on a more than rhetorical shift toward a public health approach to drug use, and Correa emphasized that in her remarks.

"We are convinced that drug policy should be designed with a holistic approach, involving families, the education system, the public health specialists, development practitioners and community leaders," she said.

Not everyone agrees with the move. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who tried repeatedly to undo those Colombian court rulings legalizing drug possession, came out swiftly against including the synthetics.

"With this personal use amount, what they are doing is validating the actions of the dealers and not taking them to prison, nor are they taking the addicts to the hospital," he complained. Decriminalizing the synthetics would only "further enslave the youth and drug more assassins to kill more people," he claimed.

Bogota
Colombia

Oregon Methamphetamine Defendant Killed After Ramming Patrol Car

A convicted meth offender facing new charges was shot and killed by Oregon deputies late Saturday after he tried to escape in his pick-up truck and rammed a patrol car. Walter Phillips, 46, of Cave Junction becomes the 27th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

Phillips had been convicted of methamphetamine possession in 2011 and was set to appear in court May 7 on new meth and marijuana trafficking charges. He also had an outstanding warrant for driving without a license.

According to the Josephine County Sheriff's Office, deputies attempted to pull over Phillips' truck Saturday night in Cave Junction, but he sped off when deputies turned on their lights. He then pulled off the highway and skidded to a stop before shifting into reverse and hitting the patrol car.

The two officers, Deputy Robert Baker and Reserve Deputy Mike Holguin, then opened fire "to try to stop him," the office said.

Phillips was airlifted to a hospital in Medford, where he was pronounced dead. The deputies did not require medical attention.

The sheriff's office has not released details on any evidence found in the pick-up truck or provided any motive for why Phillips fled.

His death is being investigated by the Oregon State Police, with assistance from Grants Pass Public Safety detectives, Josephine County Sheriff's Office, and the Josephine County District Attorney's Office.

Cave Junction, OR
United States

Two More Drug War Deaths

Two more people died last week in drug-related law enforcement actions, one in Colorado and one in Kentucky. The two men, an as yet unnamed Denver man and 46-year-old Brice Horne of Harned, Kentucky, become the 20th and 21st persons to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

In the Colorado case, police told the Denver Post that a 35-year-old man was pulled over in an April 1traffic stop and then struggled with police before collapsing and dying.

He died after a "brief use of force" that was "very minor," Denver Police spokeswoman Raquel Lopez said. Force was used after the man became combative and tried to assault the officer, she said. He was then handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, and shortly thereafter showed signs of "what appeared to be medical distress," she added.

The Office of the Medical Examiner reported that the man had "a large quantity of suspected narcotic" in his stomach.

"It appears one or more of the balloons burst or opened, releasing the content into the victim's system," Denver police said in a statement.

Denver police and the Denver District Attorney's Office are investigating.

In the Kentucky case, Kentucky State Police told media a Breckenridge County sheriff's deputy and a state police Drug Enforcement Special Investigations Task Force officer went to a Frankfort apartment last Tuesday morning to bust a methamphetamine lab.

Horne fled from the apartment and fled inside a nearby mobile home. The deputy didn't enter the mobile home, but the state agent did. Shots were fired and Horne was killed.

On Wednesday, police said the shooter was state police Detective Scott McMichael. They also said Horne confronted McMichael, threatened to kill himself, and fired his weapon before McMichael shot and killed him.

McMichael is on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Colorado Drug Sentencing Reform Bill Introduced

A bill that would drop some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors was introduced Tuesday in the Colorado Senate. Sponsors said the intent was to reduce prison populations and ensure that addicted drug users get treatment instead of long prison sentences.

It costs $32,000 a year to jail drug offenders at the Colorado State Prison II in Canon City. (cpr.org)
The measure, Senate Bill 163, would make the possession of less than four grams of most controlled substances a misdemeanor. It is currently a Class VI felony, the least serious felony level. Possession of more than four grams would drop from a Class IV felony to a Class VI felony.

Methamphetamine gets slightly stiffer treatment. In the case of meth, possession of less than two grams would drop from a Class VI felony to a misdemeanor, while possession of more than two grams would drop from Class IV to Class VI.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-District 23), one of the bill's cosponsors, has spoken publicly about his younger brother's struggles with meth and said he wants a more reasonable approach to drug use. His bill would require that any savings from reduced prison populations be used to fund drug treatment.

"The war on drugs has made government more powerful, citizens less free, and hasn't helped users or addicts," Mitchell said. "I want to push a smarter effort against drugs. I want to stop piling people into prisons and stop branding people with a felony for a personal weakness."

The bill has bipartisan support in the legislature, but is opposed by prosecutors.

Tom Raynes, head of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, told legislators that most first-time drug offenders already get deferred sentences that can be dismissed if they meet certain conditions, such as completing drug treatment programs. He said he is concerned the bill would remove an incentive for people to complete treatment.

"Kind of what keeps people in the program is concerns over getting a felony conviction," he said.

But the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which supports the bill, reported that in the 16 months ending in November 2011, 310 people convicted of drug possession were sentenced to prison, accounting for 60% of all drug offenders sent to prison. Each one of them costs the state $32,000 a year to imprison.

"I think that as state budgets have struggled, under that there's been more energy put into asking ourselves what works to promote public safety," said Christie Donner, executive director of the coalition.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have laws making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Similar legislation was introduced in California last month.

SB 163 has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it awaits a hearing.

Denver, CO
United States

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