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Press Release: North Dakota Farmers in Court Nov. 14 for Oral Arguments in Hemp Lawsuit

[Courtesy of Vote Hemp] NEWS ADVISORY: November 7, 2007 CONTACT: Adam Eidinger, T: 202-744-2671, E: adam@votehemp.com or Tom Murphy T: 207-542-4998, E: tom@votehemp.com North Dakota Farmers in Court Nov. 14 for Oral Arguments in Hemp Lawsuit BISMARCK, ND – Two North Dakota farmers, who filed a lawsuit in June to end the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) ban on commercial hemp farming in the United States, will have their day in court on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 in Bismarck, North Dakota. Oral arguments begin at 10:00 am CST in the William L. Guy Federal Building, 220 E Rosser Ave Bismarck, ND and will immediately be followed by a press conference on the courthouse steps. The farmers – State Rep. David Monson of Osnabrock and Wayne Hauge of Ray – will appear in court to observe oral arguments made on their behalf by attorneys Tim Purdon and Joe Sandler. If successful, the landmark lawsuit will lead to the first state–regulated cultivation of commercial industrial hemp farming in fifty years. WHO: Rep. David Monson, North Dakota House assistant majority leader, farmer Wayne Hauge, licensed hemp farmer Tim Purdon, Vogel Law Firm, Bismarck, attorney for the plaintiffs Joe Sandler, co-counsel for plaintiffs and legal counsel for VoteHemp.com Eric Steenstra, president, VoteHemp.com WHAT: Oral Arguments Media Availability and Teleconference on New Lawsuit to Grow Hemp WHERE: William Guy Federal Building, 220 E. Rosser Ave., Bismarck, ND 58501 WHEN: Monday, November 14, 10:00 am CDT, Oral Arguments, Media Availability Afterwards The North Dakota Legislature recently removed the requirement that state-licensed industrial hemp farmers first obtain DEA permits before growing hemp. The question before the U.S. district court will be whether or not federal authorities can prosecute state-licensed farmers who grow non-drug oilseed and fiber hemp pursuant to North Dakota state law. Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial hemp advocacy group, and it’s supporters are providing financial support for the lawsuit. If successful, states across the nation will be free to implement hemp farming laws without fear of federal interference. More on the case can be found at http://www.votehemp.com/legal_cases_ND.html.
Location: 
Bismarck, ND
United States

Feature: Supreme Court Weighs Arguments on Limits of Judicial Discretion in Sentencing

The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard oral arguments in a pair of drug cases that will help clarify how much discretion federal judges have in sentencing under federal sentencing guidelines. When rendered, the court's opinion could impact the tens of thousands of people sentenced in the federal courts each year.

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US Supreme Court
While one of the cases involves a man sentenced under the crack cocaine laws, which punish crack much more severely than powder cocaine, the court's decision will have no impact on the federal mandatory minimum sentence laws under which many drug offenders are subjected to lengthy prison sentences.

The court's taking up the two sentencing guideline cases comes as the nation's quarter-century-long experiment with mass incarceration is under increasing pressure. The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold from 24,000 prisoners in 1982 to more than 200,000 this year, more than half of them drug offenders under the harsh regime of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences.

The US Sentencing Commission is set to reduce the guidelines' crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity administratively November 1 unless Congress acts to block it, though it has not yet decided whether to make the change retroactive. While the proposed reduction is slighter than advocates have called for, if made retroactive it would help about 19,500 current prisoners, most notably those serving the longer sentences, by an average of 27 months or relief -- 1,315 current prisoners would receive sentences reductions of 49 months or more. At least three bills addressing that disparity have been filed in Congress. And just yesterday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a member the Joint Economic Committee, held a hearing titled "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?"

The Supreme Court threw the federal sentencing structure into a sort of judicial chaos when it ruled two years ago in Booker v. US, and a related case, US v. Fan Fan, that federal sentencing guidelines, which had for the past two decades limited judges' sentencing decisions to finding the proper box on a sentencing grid, were no longer mandatory, but only advisory. Since then, federal district and appellate courts have struggled to determine just what that means, with some judges sometimes handing out sentences below the guidelines, which have in turn sometimes been overturned on appeal.

The two cases before the court represent different aspects of the federal sentencing conundrum. In Gall v. US, Brian Gall was convicted of conspiracy to sell ecstasy in Iowa, but rather than sentence him to the 30-37 months in prison suggested by the guidelines, his sentencing judge gave him probation, noting that he had walked away from the conspiracy years earlier and led an exemplary life since. The probationary sentence was overturned by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

In Kimbrough v. US, Derrick Kimbrough was convicted of selling crack and powder cocaine in Virginia. Citing Kimbrough's military service and the controversy over the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, his trial judge sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 15 years instead of the 19-22 years suggested by the guidelines. His sentence, too, was overturned, this time by the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In Gall, the appeals court held that such an "extraordinary" departure from the guidelines required an "extraordinary" justification. In Kimbrough, the appeals court held that judges could not reject a guidelines sentence because of their disagreement with underlying sentencing policy.

In oral arguments in the two cases Tuesday, the court displayed some of the same confusion and ambivalence its previous sentencing rulings have generated on the federal bench. The court is caught between two seemingly irreconcilable goals: to ensure similar sentences for similar offenses, and to restore a measure of discretion to judges.

"It may be quite impossible to achieve uniformity through advisory guidelines, which is why Congress made them mandatory," Justice Antonin Scalia observed. But Scalia has led the bloc of the court that has moved to undo the mandatory federal guidelines scheme.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who helped author the guidelines and remains their strongest proponent on the court, accused Kimbrough's counsel, Michael Nachmanoff, of not offering the court a way out of its dilemma after Nachmanoff insisted that Booker required that judges be granted reasonable flexibility." You're saying either we have to make it [the sentencing guidelines] unconstitutional," he said, "or you have to say anything goes."

"Your position is not anything goes," Scalia jumped in in Nachmanoff's defense. "It's anything that's reasonable goes."

That led Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to ask, "How do we define 'reasonable?'" And so the argument turned in circles.

For his part, Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben, who argued both cases, argued that Congress intended to punish crack cocaine more seriously than powder, and judges should heed Congress' will. "For a judge to say Congress is crazy," Dreeben said, "is a sort of textbook example of an unreasonable sentencing factor."

"The guidelines are only guidelines. They are advisory," Scalia shot back, adding that sometimes sentences were too long.

While the tenor of oral arguments suggested a favorable ruling may be coming, especially for Kimbrough, observers of the court were reluctant to speculate. But they were not reluctant to talk about what it all means.

"Everyone is struggling" with the federal sentencing conundrum, said Doug Berman, professor of law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog. "Most prominently, they are trying to figure out what to make of this opaque standard of reasonableness," he said.

"If the Supreme Court reverses the circuit courts and upholds the trial courts, emphasizing the discretion district court judges have to reduce sentences below the guidelines, that could have a significant impact, especially on first offenders and others with mitigating factors," Berman said.

"The national debate over the excessive penalties prescribed under the federal sentencing guidelines for low-level crack cocaine offenses has infiltrated Congress, the advocacy community and now the US Supreme Court," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "There is nearly universal agreement that current sentences for crack cocaine offenses are unfair and ineffective. The court's action will certainly influence the policy debate," he added.

"The Supreme Court's consideration of the magnitude of discretion afforded to federal sentencing judges is a step towards creating a more just sentencing system," said Mauer. "In light of recent events in Jena, Louisiana, and concerns about disparity within the justice system, a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system has emerged," Mauer continued.

"These cases have to be considered against the backdrop of extraordinarily long terms for minor drug offenders," Berman said. "That the government can argue that sending Kimbrough to prison for 15 years is unreasonably lenient and the length of that sentence hardly gets questioned suggests that everyone has drunk the federal sentencing guideline kool-aid," he said.

For some groups with a deep interest in justice in sentencing, whatever the Supreme Court does won't be enough. "Whatever the court decides, the real solution to unjust crack sentences lies in Congress," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Even if the court permits judges to avoid unjust crack sentences called for by the guidelines, many defendants will still be sentenced under unjust mandatory minimum statutes. Congress made a mistake by basing sentencing almost exclusively on one factor -- drug quantity. Judges should be permitted to sentence based on all facts about the defendant and the offense, not just quantity. These cases show why mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unwise, unnecessary, and unjust."

It goes even deeper than that, said Chuck Armsbury of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on freeing drug war prisoners. "No amount of Supreme Court tinkering with the sentencing guidelines can guarantee an end to sentencing disparities," he said. "Most of the sentencing disparity is due to rules and results of deal making by informants, police and prosecutors working together secretly. The justices are unlikely to admit they can't determine the fairness of a hidden system's operations," he argued. "To fix this broken system would mean to rein in police, prosecutors and the snitch system producing substantial differences in drug sentences."

That's not going to happen through the Supreme Court chipping at the edges of draconian sentencing, Armsbury said. "Even if they win, the cases under review this week will likely join a long line of previous Supreme Court cases that failed to correct wrongful sentencing practices or result in the release of thousands of over-incarcerated people, the great majority convicted of drug crimes."

Still, if further reform of the draconian federal sentencing laws comes out of this pair of cases, some drug defendants will get lesser sentences, and that's a good thing. But as the critics point out, it's not enough. The mass incarceration juggernaut has been speeding along for decades now, and it's going to require more than some Supreme Court decisions tinkering at the edges to achieve fundamental change.

Fairness of Crack Cocaine Sentencing Fundamental to Oct. 2 Supreme Court Case

[Courtesy of The Sentencing Project] At a time of heightened public awareness regarding excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system, the United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument tomorrow in a case that touches on the controversial crack cocaine sentencing debate. The case, Kimbrough v. United States, explores the reasonableness of a federal district judge's below-guideline sentencing decision based on the unfairness of the 100 to 1 quantity disparity between powder and crack cocaine. The Sentencing Project submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the petitioner, Derrick Kimbrough, which argues that current drug guidelines inappropriately limit the factors that judges may consider at sentencing. Mr. Kimbrough's case stems from his 2005 guilty plea in Norfolk, VA, for possession with intent to distribute 56 grams of crack cocaine and possession of a firearm. Kimbrough, a Desert Storm veteran with no previous felony convictions, was prosecuted in federal court where penalties involving crack cocaine are harsher than in state systems. As a result, instead of receiving a sentence of about 10 years under Virginia law, he faced a federal sentencing guideline range between 19 and 22 years. Federal District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, who presided over Kimbrough's case, called the recommended guideline sentence "ridiculous" and instead sentenced Kimbrough to 15 years, the minimum required by mandatory sentencing policies. Tomorrow, the Court will consider whether Judge Jackson's decision was "reasonable" according to federal sentencing standards. For more information, visit www.sentencingproject.org/crackreform or download the amicus brief at http://sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/dp_kimbrough.pdf.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Press Release: Strong Growth of Hemp Food and Body Care Sales Continues in 2007

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, September 25, 2007 CONTACT: Tom Murphy: T: 207-542-4998, E: tom@thehia.org or Adam Eidinger, T: 202-744-2671, E: adam@votehemp.com Strong Growth of Hemp Food and Body Care Sales Continues in 2007 U.S. Farmers Suing DEA to Grow Industrial Hemp for Expanding Market Baltimore, MD – As leading North American brands that make hemp food and body care products with hemp seed and oil exhibit at the Natural Products Expo in Baltimore from September 27-29, new retail data released today proves that these brands are racking up record sales. The strong sales have occurred against the backdrop of state-licensed hemp farmers in North Dakota fighting a high stakes legal battle against the DEA to grow hemp seed for U.S. manufacturers. The new sales data lends credibility to U.S. farmers’ assertion that they are being left out of the lucrative hemp market that Canadian farmers have cashed in on for ten years. The sales data, collected by the market research firm SPINS, was obtained from natural food retailers only, excluding Whole Foods Market and mass-market food and pharmacy stores, and thus under-represents actual sales by a factor of two to three. The new report shows that hemp food sales grew in the sampled stores by 39% over the previous year (from August 2006 to August 2007), or by $2.1 million, to a total of $7.7 million. Based on the representative growth of this sample, the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) Food and Oil Committee now estimates that the total retail value of hemp foods sold over the past 12 months in North America grew from $14 million last year to approximately $20 million this year. In addition, the SPINS data show that sales of hemp body care products grew 11% over the past 12 months in the sampled stores to $12 million. Due to the large hemp body care line sold by The Body Shop, as well as the fact that many unreported leading mass-market brands of sun tan lotion and sunscreen products include hemp oil, the HIA estimates the total retail value of North American hemp body care sales to be at least $50 million. “The hard work we did four years ago to preserve legal sales of hemp foods through successful litigation has paid off with steady double-digit growth year after year,” says David Bronner, Chair of the HIA Food and Oil Committee and President of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. “The HIA is confident that the total North American hemp food and body care market over the last 12 months accounted for at least $65-70 million in retail sales,” adds Bronner. Over the last three years, hemp food sales have averaged 41% annual growth, making it one of the fastest-growing natural food categories. "Last fall we expected the double-digit growth of the hemp food sector to continue in 2007, especially since hemp milk would finally be available to waiting consumers," comments Eric Steenstra, HIA Executive Director. "We project that growth in the markets for hemp food and body care will keep pace into 2008,” says Steenstra. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Statistics Canada data show that the quantity of hemp seed exports increased 300% from 2006 to 2007. Hemp oil exports kept pace, with an 85% increase in quantity. Hemp fiber exports showed encouraging progress, with a 65% increase in quantity. All statistics represent growth from the period January to June in 2007 versus the same period in 2006. A summary of hemp food and body care sales data is available by visiting http://www.thehia.org/PDF/HempSPINS2007.pdf . # # # The mission of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) is to represent the interests of the hemp industry and to encourage the research and development of new hemp products. More information about hemp’s many uses and hemp legislation may be found at www.HempIndustries.org or www.VoteHemp.com. DVD Video News Releases featuring footage of hemp farming in other countries are available upon request by contacting Adam Eidinger at 202-744-2671.
Location: 
Baltimore, MD
United States

Press Release: North Dakota Farmers File Motion for Summary Judgment

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, September 20, 2007 CONTACT: Adam Eidinger, T: 202-744-2671, E: adam@votehemp.com or Tom Murphy, T: 207-542-4998, E: tom@votehemp.com North Dakota Farmers File Motion for Summary Judgment in Hemp Farming Case Motion Includes Response to DEA’s Motion to Dismiss BISMARCK, ND – Two North Dakota farmers, State Rep. David Monson from Osnabrock and Wayne Hauge from Ray, have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment in a lawsuit filed June 18 in U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota that seeks to end the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) obstruction of state-licensed and state-regulated commercial hemp farming in the United States. The farmers are seeking a declaration that they cannot be criminally prosecuted for growing hemp under state regulations, now in effect in North Dakota, which ensure cultivated plants have no potential drug value and are grown solely for the production of legal hemp fiber and seed commodities. The Motion and other legal documents can be viewed at http://www.votehemp.com/legal. “The DEA cannot purport to extend Congressional authority under the Commerce Clause via the Controlled Substances Act in order to interfere with North Dakota’s industrial hemp program, in which only federally-exempted, entirely legal hemp fiber and seed commodities are placed into interstate commerce,” says Tim Purdon, an attorney working on the case. “North Dakota regulations enforce conservatively strict non-psychoactive THC limits similar to Canadian regulations, which ensure there is no drug value in any part of the plant that could be diverted into the interstate market for recreational marijuana.” The farmers were issued their state licenses to grow industrial hemp from North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson in February 2007. Pursuant to North Dakota law at that time, the farmers also applied for a DEA license to grow industrial hemp. Over the next few months, however, the DEA’s delay and expressed intent to review the applications as if the farmers intended to grow an unprecedented amount of Schedule I drugs, versus cultivate a non-drug agricultural crop, fueled frustration in North Dakota’s legislature. In April, the legislature changed their law, removing the requirement for a DEA license and asserting that the state license itself was fully sufficient. An Affidavit accompanying the Motion from Professor Burton Johnson of North Dakota State University (NDSU) included a formal letter from NDSU to the DEA this summer. In the letter, NDSU relays that the public university was directed in 1998 by North Dakota state law to collect and cultivate feral, local wild hemp in order to begin breeding industrial hemp varieties that could best thrive in North Dakota’s climate and meet the requirement of 3/10 of one percent THC or less in flowering tops. NDSU filed for a license from the DEA in 1999, but to date the agency has failed to act on the application. See the letter online at http://www.votehemp.com/PDF/NDSU_Letter_7-30-2007.pdf. “The national movement supporting farmers’ right to grow hemp learned from the NDSU example that the DEA has no intention of being rational about facilitating non-drug industrial hemp research and cultivation, even when it’s by a major university,” says Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra. Vote Hemp’s grassroots supporters are funding this legal action to overcome the irrational hysteria and bureaucratic inertia of the DEA, and to restore industrial hemp farming to American farmers. Vote Hemp is dedicating this effort to recently-deceased Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, and Michael Sutherland, former board member of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA). Both were trail-blazing pioneers in the modern restoration and renaissance of the global hemp industry. # # # Vote Hemp is a national non-profit organization dedicated to the acceptance of and a free market for low-THC industrial hemp and to changes in current law to allow U.S. farmers to once again grow the crop. More information about hemp legislation and the crop's many uses may be found at www.VoteHemp.com or www.HempIndustries.org. DVD Video News Releases featuring footage of hemp farming in other countries are available upon request by contacting Adam Eidinger at 202-744-2671.
Location: 
Bismarck, ND
United States

Medical Marijuana: Bryan Epis Re-Sentenced to 10 Years in Federal Prison

Bryan Epis, the first California medical marijuana provider tried in federal court for growing marijuana, was sentenced last Friday to 10 years in federal prison -- again. Epis was convicted in 2002 of growing more than 1,000 marijuana plants and served 25 months of his original 10-year sentence before being released on appeal bond.

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David Borden and Bryan Epis at the 2005 NORML conference
The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered the lower court to reconsider Epis' conviction, but it found him guilty again.

Epis argued all along that he was a medical marijuana patient who worked with other patients within California law at a medical marijuana grow in Chico. But prosecutors portrayed him as an entrepreneurial mastermind with plans to distribute marijuana across the state.

In an unusual move, Circuit Court Judge Frank Damrell refused prosecution requests to immediately take Epis into custody, noting that the 9th Circuit had earlier ordered him released "without comment," a move Damrell described as "unprecedented in my experience. The law requires such an action be supported by exceptional circumstances, so I can only assume that they found exceptional circumstances," Damrell said. "My suspicion is the 9th Circuit would grant bail again," the judge added.

Damrell set an October 22 hearing date for a forthcoming motion for bail pending appeal.

Epis' attorney, Brenda Grantland, has argued that prosecutor Samuel Wong and DEA agents intentionally misinterpreted documents seized at Epis' home when it was searched in June 1997. Wong described the documents as a statewide marketing plan, saying Epis' "goal was to go statewide and use Proposition 215 as a shield to manufacture and traffic marijuana."

Grantland told Damrell that the 9th Circuit was "very interested" in her allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and perjury by narcotics officers in the case. Damrell agreed that the appeals court "may have some interest" in the issues Grantland raised.

For his part, Epis told the court he was a martyr for medical marijuana.
"If Proposition 215 had not passed, I wouldn't be standing here today," Epis told Damrell. "I'm being prosecuted because I have a heart. I've seen too many people suffer and die from cancer and AIDS not to try to help them. I'm not ashamed of what I did, but I am sorry for my family."

Sacramento: Please Attend Medical Marijuana Activist Bryan Epis Federal Resentencing Hearing Friday

Bryan Epis, a former medical marijuana provider who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, and served two years before being released in the wake of the Raich medical marijuana decision, is returning to court for resentencing pending the filing of his appeal. Bryan asks that reformers in the area attend the hearing as a show of support. It is taking place at 10:00am this Friday morning (9/14) in Sacramento, California -- courtroom of Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., 501 I Street, 15th floor, courtroom two. Click here to read our 2005 interview with Bryan, and click here to read about possible misconduct committed by the prosecution in his case. We will report in our blog Friday afternoon (or as soon as information becomes available) on what happens.
Location: 
Sacramento, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana: WAMM Lawsuit Hits Bump

A Santa Cruz medical marijuana cooperative that was raided by the DEA in 2002 was dealt a setback August 28 when a federal judge granted a US Justice Department motion to stop them from suing it. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) and the city and county of Santa Cruz sought to sue US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez to prevent his office from continuing raids on medical marijuana providers in California.

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2005 WAMM march, downtown Santa Cruz (courtesy santacruz.indymedia.org)
The lawsuit cited California's Compassionate Use Act, approved by voters in 1996, which makes the medical use of marijuana legal in the state. But the Justice Department successfully argued that marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and US District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel agreed, granting its motion to block the lawsuit.

"Naturally, we're disappointed. I had hoped for something better," said Mike Corral, who, along with his wife Valerie, were cofounders of WAMM.

WAMM and Santa Cruz may be down, but they're not out just yet. Judge Fogel left two of the county's claims intact: a 10th Amendment argument that the states -- not the federal government -- have say over marijuana, and an argument that medical necessity trumps federal drug laws. The county's legal team says it will continue to argue those claims while trying to build a stronger case that the federal government is improperly intervening in areas that should be the purview of the states.

Asset Forfeiture: ACLU Sues DEA Over Trucker's Seized Cash

A trucker who lost nearly $24,000 in cash after it was seized by a New Mexico police officer and turned over to the DEA is suing the federal drug agency to get his money back. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) New Mexico affiliate is handling the case. It filed the lawsuit on August 23.

On August 8, truck driver Anastasio Prieto of El Paso was stopped at a weigh station on US Highway 54 just north of El Paso. A police officer there asked for permission to search the truck for "needles or cash in excess of $10,000," according to the ACLU. Prieto said he didn't have any needles, but he was carrying $23,700 in cash. Officers seized the money and turned it over to the DEA, while DEA agents photographed and fingerprinted Prieto despite his objections, then released him without charges after he had been detained for six hours. Border Patrol agents sicced drug-sniffing dogs on his truck, but found no evidence of illegal drugs.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the state police and DEA violated Prieto's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful search and seizure by taking his money without cause and by fingerprinting and photographing him. "Mere possession of approximately $23,700 does not establish probable cause for a search or seizure," the lawsuit said.

DEA agents told Prieto that to get his money back, he would have to prove it was his and not the proceeds of illegal drug sales. That process could take up to a year, the agents said.

But New Mexico ACLU state director Peter Simonson told the Associated Press Prieto needed his money now to pay bills. "The government took Mr. Prieto's money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night," Simonson said. "In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator."

According to the lawsuit, Prieto does not like banks and carries his savings as cash.

That's not a crime. But what the DEA did to him is, or should be.

Drug War Prisoners: 86-Year-Old Alva Mae Groves Dies Behind Bars

Alva Mae "Granny" Groves, the 86-year-old North Carolina grandmother sentenced to 24 years behind bars after refusing to testify against her children, died last week at a federal prison hospital in Texas. Federal prison officials denied her request to die at home, saying her charges were too serious to allow compassionate release.

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Alva Mae Groves (courtesy november.org)
Groves had already served 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to sell cocaine and aiding and abetting the trading of crack cocaine for food stamps. She was 74 when she went to prison. She always maintained that she had been punished for failing to cooperate with federal prosecutors to lock up her children for life.

"My real crime... was refusing to testify against my sons, children of my womb, that were conceived, birthed and raised with love," Groves wrote in a 2001 letter to November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on freeing federal drug war prisoners.

Law enforcement officials continue to maintain that Groves played a key role in a cocaine conspiracy conducted by family members, but family members have always said she did nothing more than look the other way. Five members of her family were imprisoned in the investigation. Her son, Ricky Groves, is doing a life sentence, while Groves, her older daughter, and her granddaughter were all sent to federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida.

Groves became one of the poster children for sentencing reform as reaction grew to the drug war excesses of the 1980s and 1990s. But any reforms will come too late for the grandmother who loved tending her garden.

"It's a relief she's dead, but it's a hurt, a real hurt we weren't with her," daughter Everline told the Charlotte Observer. "What could she have hurt?"

Groves dreamed of getting out of prison, planting new gardens, and seeing grandchildren born while she was behind bars, but never had the chance. Her kidneys began failing early this year, and she was transferred to a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth.

Groves did not want to die in prison, she told the November Coalition in a recent letter. "I realize everyone has a day to die; death is a fate that will not be cheated. But I don't want to die in prison. I want to die at home surrounded by the love of what's left of my family."

Last winter, the Groves family asked for compassionate release so she could die at home. The family wrote to every official they could think of and enlisted the help of groups like the November Coalition, to no avail. As Groves' daughters leaned over her bed on July 19, prison officials handed them a letter denying the request.

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