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Feature: Clamor Grows for Freedom for Texas Marijuana Prisoner Tyrone Brown

In 1990, Tyrone Brown, then 17 years old, took part in a $2 Dallas stickup in which no one was hurt. He got caught, pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, and received a sentence of 10 years probation. A few weeks later, he was in court again -- because a drug test detected the presence of marijuana in his urine. For still unexplained reasons, his sentencing judge, Keith Dean, threw the book at him. The 17-year-old was resentenced to life in prison, where he remains to this day.

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Tyrone Brown with daughter Elaine (picture from november.org)
But now, thanks to drug reform activists, a Dallas newspaper, a nationally televised investigative journalism program, and outraged citizens across the land, Brown may finally get a second chance. An effort to win a commutation of his sentence from Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the Texas parole board is well underway.

Despite his efforts to seek redress and freedom, Brown sat unnoticed in the burgeoning Texas prison system for year after year. In desperation, in 2004 Brown sent a letter detailing his plight to The November Coalition, a national drug reform organization that concentrates on drug war prisoners. A few months later -- after verifying Brown's information -- the Coalition added Brown to the list of drug prisoners on its The Wall web pages, and a few months after that, they got a call from Dallas Morning News reporter Brooks Egerton.

"We posted his story on The Wall in March 2005, and I heard from Brooks Egerton that fall," said November's Chuck Armsbury. "He couldn't believe this business about getting a life sentence for smoking a joint on probation."

Last April, Egerton published a story, "Scales of Justice Can Swing Wildly," contrasting Judge Dean's treatment of Brown -- a poor, black teenager -- and John Alexander Wood -- a wealthy, well-connected white man. While Brown got 10-year suspended sentence for the robbery, Wood got a 10-year suspended sentence for murdering a prostitute. When Brown tested positive for pot, Judge Dean sent him to prison for life. When Wood repeatedly tested positive for cocaine and got arrested for cocaine possession, Judge Dean didn't jail him for life. Instead, he let Wood stay a free man and even exempted him from having to take drug tests or meet a probation officer.

In that article, Judge Dean refused to discuss the two cases, saying he might have to rule on them again. But he told the Morning News that he generally tried to evaluate "the potential danger to the community" and "what, in the long run, is going to be in the best interest of the community and the person themselves."

According to courthouse observers cited by Egerton, Judge Dean typically let defendants like Brown off with a warning for a positive marijuana test and gave them a couple days in jail for a second violation. "Life in prison for smoking a joint -- that's harsh in any case," said former probation officer Don Ford.

Egerton's April story not only outraged readers in Texas, it caught the eye of ABC News' 20-20, which aired a program on Brown's case in early November and ran an update on Thanksgiving Day. With the airing of the 20-20 pieces, the outrage went national.

"After the 20-20 piece aired, a wonderful group of citizens coalesced around justice for Tyrone," said November Coalition executive director Nora Callahan. "People began discussing this on the 20-20 message boards, then they found our web site. We worked with those people to form the group Good Luck, Mr. Brown -- those were Judge Dean's parting words to him -- and now we are working to get his sentence commuted," she told Drug War Chronicle.

College students and housewives came together to work to free Brown, and so did lawyers. One of them was Florida attorney Charley Douglas. "I saw the ABC 20-20 special and I was stunned by the utter injustice of what occurred in that Texas courtroom," he told the Chronicle. "I knew something had to be done to bring justice to a man who has been denied justice for so many years.

Douglas was careful to stay on point. "This is about unequal justice, not a campaign against the drug laws," he said. "We have a lot of people interested in drug reform, but we are trying to stay focused on the goal of getting Tyrone out. How does a rich white guy get a slap on the wrist and poor black guy get life in prison for smoking marijuana? It's a tragedy of the American justice system and we are bound and determined to right that wrong."

Given what has happened since the firestorm broke, that may just happen. The campaign has managed to procure letters from Dallas District Attorney Bill Hill, Sheriff Louie Valdez, and -- just this week -- Judge Dean himself asking for a commutation of sentence. (Judge Dean is now out of office; he was defeated in the November elections.)

Those letters didn't happen by themselves, said Douglas. "Over Thanksgiving, I spoke with Dallas NAACP head Bob Lydia, and he said we needed to get DA Hill on board, so we launched a letter-writing campaign asking him to do whatever he could to support Mr. Brown's release, and on November 30, he sent a letter to Gov. Perry asking for the commutation process to begin. We're very, very excited about that."

Lydia reported Monday after meeting with Judge Dean that Dean had promised to seek an end to Brown's imprisonment, but according to the Dallas Morning News, neither Lydia nor the Texas parole board had received anything from him as of Tuesday afternoon.

Once the parole board gets a commutation request it will consider Brown's case. The board's top lawyer, Laura McElroy, told the Morning News it is not easy to win a commutation without presenting new facts not available to the court or jury at trial, but that she would do what she could. "If the law can be stretched, we'll stretch it," she said, adding that Brown's sentence was the worst example of judicial overreaction to a probation violation she had ever seen. "It's legal, but nobody likes this. Nobody thinks this is fair," she said. "Everybody's really concerned and paying attention to it."

In the meantime, Tyrone Brown sits in prison. He is not technically a drug war prisoner, but he joins several hundred thousand others who are. In Brown's case the war on drugs was not the cause, but the means for injustice. In those cases of people imprisoned for years or decades on drug charges, the drug war is both cause and means.

Judge Rejects Counties' Medical Marijuana Suit

Location: 
San Diego, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/california/la-me-sbriefs7.1dec07,1,729245.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california&ctrack=1&cset=true

Medical Marijuana: County Lawsuit Challenging California Law Thrown Out

San Diego Superior Court Judge William Nevitt, Jr. on Wednesday threw out a challenge to California's medical marijuana law, saying there was "no positive conflict" between state and federal law. The ruling came against a lawsuit filed by San Diego County in February and later joined by San Bernardino and Merced counties. County officials in all three jurisdictions were hostile to Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) and SB 420, which set up a state Medical Marijuana Program (MMP) with a system of county-administered ID cards.

The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance jointly intervened to block the lawsuit. It was a September 1 motion argued by ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford that resulted in the favorable ruling.

In his ruling, Judge Nevitt concluded that "neither the Compassionate Use Act nor the MMP is preempted by the Supremacy Clause, by the CSA (Controlled Substances Act), or by the Single Convention." Nevitt also found that, contrary to the arguments by the recalcitrant counties, the voluntary ID card program "does not interfere" with the stated purpose of the Compassionate Use Act, which is to "ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes."

ASA executive director Steph Sherer declared the decision a victory for California's medical marijuana patients. "For the tens of thousands of seriously ill Californians who depend on medical marijuana, this victory could not be more significant," she said. "San Diego Supervisors sought clarification from the courts and now, with this ruling, we encourage San Diego and counties across California to move forward with implementing state law."

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Careful readers will have noted that there was no corrupt cops story in Drug War Chronicle last week. That's because we couldn't find any. One of our primary sources, Bad Cop News, had essentially gone silent, and my Google alerts on various drug-related words and phrases had turned up nothing. I appealed to my readers in a blog post on Friday, however, and thanks in part to their responses, we have more corrupt cops stories this week. I have revised and widened my Google alerts, but I'm still calling on readers to send me any local corrupt cops stories they come across. I may have seen them already, but maybe not. Just visit my contact page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/user/psmith and put "corrupt cops" in the subject line to send them along.

This week, it's a veritable potpourri of police misconduct with a heavy emphasis on the larcenous. Let's get to it:

In Chicago, three police officers were charged Monday in a widening probe into allegations Chicago police shook down drug suspects. Officers James McGovern, 40, Frank Villareal, 38, and Margaret Hopkins, 32, all members of the department's special operations section, are charged with official misconduct, and Villareal and Hopkins are also charged with home invasion. Four other Chicago police officers were arrested on similar charges in September. All are accused of robbing, kidnapping, and intimidating drug dealers and using their badges to gain access to homes. So far, the arrests have forced prosecutors to drop more than 100 drug cases.

In Norwalk, Iowa, an assistant fire chief is accused of stealing drugs and covering it up. Assistant Fire Chief Michael Wenger, 41, was arrested last Friday after admitting stealing opiate pain relievers used for EMS calls, including morphine, Tordal, and Fentanyl, and altering logs to hide his thievery. He is charged with fraudulent practices and two counts of possessing a controlled substance. Norwalk, which has been without a fire chief for the past year, now lacks an assistant chief, too.

In Las Vegas, New Mexico, a New Mexico Highlands University security officer has been charged with drug trafficking. Police allege they found cocaine in Officer Michelle Espinoza's purse last week. According to a university spokeswoman, Espinoza, 35, has been placed on leave pending resolution of the case.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, a Pittston Township police officer was charged in federal court last Friday with felony drug and weapons offenses. Officer Michael Byra, 28, recently testified he had made at least 60 drug busts, but it appears he had problems leaving the evidence alone. He is charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm during a felony drug trafficking transaction and possession of a stolen firearm. The charges came after the DEA investigated missing evidence -- heroin, cocaine, marijuana, guns, $10,000 in cash, files, and a log book. Byra now faces up to life in prison.

In Ashland, Kentucky, a former state trooper pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges he stole $180,000 from police drug buy funds. Former trooper Louie Podunavac Jr., 41, was a sergeant responsible for the narcotics division in Boyd, Greenup, and Lawrence counties in eastern Kentucky until he retired in July upon being questioned by investigators hunting for missing funds. He admitted in court that he used his access to a state bank account to take money designated for drug buys and transfer it to an account in his own name. Podunavac will be sentenced March 12. He also faces six state charges of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. Podunavac's attorney, David Mussetter, explained that Podunavac broke his ankle in 2003, got strung out on Lortab, and stole the money to buy painkillers.

Near Boston, a Malden Police officer was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on November 15 for ripping-off a drug dealer. Officer David Jordan, a 19-year veteran of the force, participated in a scheme with a local drug dealer to stop a rival dealer and steal three kilograms of cocaine valued at $81,000. Jordan's co-conspirator, Anthony Bucci, 43, of Wakefield, got 22 years the same day.

Drug Raids: Cops Looking Worse and Worse as Facts Emerge in Deadly Atlanta Case

The shooting death of 88-year-old Atlanta resident Kathryn Johnston at the hands of undercover Atlanta police after she fired at them as they burst through her front door continues to cause outrage in the community. And as the days go by, more and more questions are being raised about police behavior that night.

Police originally said they had bought drugs at Johnston's address. Police originally said they knocked and announced their presence before entering. But the search warrant that led to the raid, which Fulton County officials originally refused to release, is clearly marked as a "no-knock" warrant. The affidavit that led to the warrant describes not the police but a confidential informant making the alleged drug buy.

It gets worse -- The confidential informant said this week he never bought drugs at the house and that the police asked him to lie about it after the fact. This has provoked a counterattack by unknowns unhappy with the "reliable" informant, who have leaked his identity to the press and described him as a "drug dealer" as a prelude to discrediting him. [Ed: Somehow that doesn't seem to discredit such people sufficiently to throw out their testimony in mandatory minimum cases.]

Police Chief Richard Pennington now says the department will review its "no-knock" policy. In a preemptive move, Pennington also announced that the killing of Kathryn Johnston will be the subject of a federal investigation. But even those moves haven't taken the heat off of the Atlanta police, with Pennington manfully enduring raucous public meetings where member after member of the community have excoriated him and his department over Johnston's death and trigger-happy police practices.

More community meetings are coming, and multiple investigations are ongoing. Perhaps the killing of Kathryn Johnston will end up serving some purpose if her death helps to rein in law enforcers who treat citizens as if they were enemy combatants.

Visit The Agitator blog for ongoing updates on this case and other bad drug raids.

Legalization: Vermont States Attorney Calls for Decriminalization of All Drugs

Windsor County, Vermont, States Attorney Robert Sand has spoken out against the drug war. In a Thursday interview with the Rutland Herald, Sand said he favors decriminalizing all drugs and a public health approach to drug use.

"It's hard for me to see the vast resources expended on drug cases," Sand said. The 15-year prosecutor added that he wished more resources would go into prosecuting the physical and sexual abuse of children. "Don't get me wrong. Drugs are bad for you, they impair your judgment, they affect your memory, they reduce your inhibitions in a dangerous way. They're not good for you."

But the state of Vermont needs to rethink whether it is the role of government to forcibly stop people from using intoxicating substances, Sand said. The idea should not be considered radical, he protested. "I actually reject the premise that it's radical. I'm not condoning people breaking the law. My duty is to enforce the law but it's not my role to just passively accept a situation that exacerbates public danger. Prohibition doesn't work; we should have learned that with alcohol," he said.

It is drug prohibition, not drugs themselves, that causes the most serious crime, Sand argued. "Drug transactions cause the most serious crimes," he said, noting that the disputes deal with money owed, drugs stolen and turf wars between dealers. "That's the violence of drugs," he said, not drug-induced crime. "We don't see crazed crack heads or someone on crystal," he said.

Sand told the Herald he had taken his message to major police departments, and after an initially rocky response, could get police to see his point of view. He asks them to think "about the worst drug house in their community, the worst drug dealer, the worst addict" and then asks them to envision the house painted and repaired and people obtaining drugs legally. That's when they come around he said. "It means less violence. It means less addicts."

Sand has only recently begun speaking out, he told the Herald. It sounds like he is ready to be heard.

Drug Raids: Atlanta Police Kill Woman, 92, Who Shot Invading Officers

Three undercover Atlanta police officers who kicked in the door of an elderly Atlanta woman to serve a no-knock search warrant for drugs were shot and wounded when the woman opened fire on the intruders. They returned fire, killing 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston inside her home.

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Kathryn Johnston
Friends, neighbors, and relatives of the woman described her as a long-term neighborhood resident who was feeble and frightened, rarely letting even friends and neighbors enter her home, which she kept locked. She apparently opened fire as the police raiders broke through burglar bars on her front door. Johnson fired five shots from a revolver, wounding the three officers before she was killed by two shots to the chest.

As anger and concern grew in the community, Atlanta police worked urgently to explain and justify the killing. During a Wednesday press conference, Assistant Police Chief Alan Dreher said police had purchased drugs from an unknown man earlier in the day at the Johnston residence and returned the same evening with a no-knock search warrant. That man was not found, but police said they found an unspecified amount of an unspecified controlled substance inside the home. Police originally said they knocked and announced their presence before entering the home, but that is now in doubt.

"It was a very tragic and unfortunate incident," said Assistant Chief Dreher, who added that Johnston was not suspected of selling drugs and that police knew nothing about her.

He got no argument from local activist the Rev. Markell Hutchins on that point. "This is one of the most tragic cases of police-involved use of force, not only in Atlanta, but in the nation," said Hutchins, who had counseled the family, and set up a meeting with a law firm. "It appears Mrs. Johnston was a model citizen. A good citizen and a matriarch of the community," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"A confrontation with police and a 92-year-old woman don't go together," echoed State Rep. "Able" Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta).

Although Assistant Chief Dreher promised "a complete, thorough investigation" of the killing, neighbors and community activists did not wait to take to the streets. On Wednesday evening, more than a hundred people gathered in front of the Johnston home for a candlelight vigil to demand justice in the case.

Johnson is only the latest victim of overzealous law enforcement in police raids gone bad, the vast majority of them related to drug law enforcement. See "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America" by Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko for an overview of the subject.

Editorial: Things That Happen Over and Over

One of the feature stories in the news this week was the annual ritual of the Thanksgiving "Turkey Pardon." This year "Flyer" and "Fryer," their names chosen in an online reader poll on the White House web site, got to live out the remainder of their natural lives on a farm in rural Virginia. The Turkey Pardon, a quasi-official act of the sitting US President, has happened reliably every Thanksgiving week for nearly 60 years.

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David Borden
Another annual occurrence has been the current President's relative disuse of his power to grant clemencies and pardons. When I first commented on the Turkey Pardons, "Stars" and "Stripes" in 2003, Bush had yet to use the power at all. Now that is no longer completely true, but it is still close to being true. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders, the federal prisoner count rose steeply since 2003 -- from 150,000 to over 190,000 -- while the president has issued a mere two commutations and 97 pardons over his entire term. As a long-time vegetarian, I certainly don't oppose the turkey pardons. But when it comes to another long-time White House holiday tradition, Christmas pardons of people, George Bush has been a veritable Scrooge, if not a Grinch, and that should stop.

Yet another thing that happens over and over -- something no one would dare to call a tradition, yet whose reoccurrence is plainly inevitable -- is the accidental killing in drug raids of innocent or at least nonviolent people by paramilitarized police squadrons. What happens is that SWAT teams, many of which have more or less turned into drug squads, will use incredibly aggressive tactics like battering rams or stun grenades to break into homes of suspected drug offenders. The people inside, not expecting the intrusion and not understanding it to be any different from an attack, react with mere trauma most of the time, but sometimes by dying of heart attacks or by pulling out guns in self-defense and getting shot. Sometimes the people inside get shot whether they pull out guns or not.

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Pardoning turkeys isn't enough -- because enough is enough.
A report by the Cato Institute this year examines the problem in detail. It has been growing. Atlanta's Kathryn Johnston was the latest victim. The 92-year old opened fire on three police officers after they forced their way into her home without knocking. The officers were wounded, but returned fire on Johnston, who was killed. People are justifiably angry, many regarding Johnston's use of her weapon as justified in the circumstances, albeit tragic in where it led. Police called the incident "tragic" but said they were executing a legal warrant after an undercover officer had bought drugs at her home. Time will tell if that claim is truthful or otherwise. But even if it is, how does it justify what happened?

Drug war killings by SWAT teams of people who are innocent or undeserving of it are only one of the many drug war outrages that happen over and over. In my opinion it is time to say "enough is enough."

As a first step, I ask that those of you reading this, who have other drug war outrages they care about, make posts discussing them to the comment section at the bottom of this web page. (If would be great if you could log in first too, so you won't be "anonymous" and people including us at DRCNet will know how to reach you. We're going to be doing some redesign work to make that easier during the next few weeks.)

Next week we will begin to talk about step two...

Marijuana: San Francisco Supervisors Approve Lowest Law Enforcement Priority Policy

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave final approval Tuesday for an ordinance making marijuana offenses the police department's lowest priority. The San Francisco district attorney is also directed to make prosecuting marijuana offenses her office's lowest priority. Public marijuana sales, possession by minors, and use by motorists will continue to be prosecuted.

The ordinance also creates an oversight committee through which people who feel they were wrongly targeted can seek a review of their cases. And it requires the Board of Supervisors to annually notify the state and federal governments that "the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco has passed an ordinance to deprioritize marijuana offenses by adults, and requests that the federal and California state governments take immediate steps to tax and regulate marijuana use, cultivation, and distribution and to authorize state and local communities to do the same."

The ordinance introduced by Supervisor Tom Ammiano passed 8-3.

"San Francisco should determine its marijuana policy locally, not hand it over to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration," the ordinance read. "Law enforcement resources would be better spent fighting serious and violent crimes."

San Francisco now joins Oakland, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood on the list of California cities that have embraced lowest priority ordinances. Only West Hollywood and San Francisco have adopted such an ordinance through action by elected officials; in the other cities, action came through voter initiatives. Seattle, Columbia, Missouri, Missoula, Montana, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas, have also passed such initiatives.

A panoply of state and national drug reform organizations supported the move. Among them were Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, California NORML, and a number of local drug reform groups and political clubs.

"By urging our law enforcement community to ignore adult marijuana offenses, our police officers can focus on battling the increase in serious and violent crime, much of which is ironically directly related to our failed prohibitionist approach to drugs," said Camilla Field, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance San Francisco office. "This vote represents one small, but significant, step toward making our communities safer."

And one more small step toward undoing the marijuana laws.

Racial Profiling: It Never Went Away on the New Jersey Turnpike

Despite seven years of reforms aimed at eradicating racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police, the practice continues unabated and has even gotten worse. That's according to an American Civil Liberties Union study that found 30% of drivers stopped on the southern portion of the New Jersey Turnpike were black while African-Americans comprised only 18% of the population.

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New Jersey Turnpike entrance
The ACLU of New Jersey used a Tuesday hearing of the Advisory Committee on Police Standards to submit its findings as it urged continued monitoring of state troopers to prevent racial profiling. The Tuesday meeting was the last of four set to study the problem. The panel was appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to decide whether court-ordered monitoring of the state police should continue.

The state agreed to a consent decree aimed at reforming State Police practices following the shooting of three unarmed young people of color on the Turnpike in 1998. In recent years, court-appointed monitors have found the agency is complying with the decree, and the federal government has offered to lift it.

But State Police continue to stop black drivers at "greatly disproportionate" rates on the southern part of the turnpike, ACLU legal director Edward Barocas told the committee. "Profiling continues unabated," Barocas testified. "African-Americans now make up a higher percentage of stops than they did before the consent decree began."

State Police spokesmen said they were aware that black drivers were being stopped disproportionately, but claimed it did not result from racial profiling. "We've been assured by the independent monitoring team that they have seen no indication of troopers performing unconstitutional actions or any sign of disparate treatment," said Lt. Col. Tom Gilbert.

While Gilbert played defense, State Troopers Fraternal Association president David Jones went on the attack. The ACLU study, in which an outside consultant measured the number of black, brown, and white drivers on the southern Turnpike and compared it with the number of traffic stops, was "junk science" designed to protect the "cottage industry" of defense lawyers who sue the State Police, he claimed. "Everybody there (at the Moorestown Station) from the very top on down has been changed a multitude of times," Jones said, explaining about transfers. "The anomaly exists because sometimes a violator is a violator."

State Police head Rick Fuentes wants to replace the court-appointed monitors with an academic panel, but racial profiling expert Professor Samuel Walker of the University of Nebraska-Omaha said stronger monitoring was needed. "External, independent oversight -- a different set of eyes and ears -- is extremely important for maintaining professional standards," said Walker. "You've got reforms in place. The real important issue is maintaining them... and it requires continuous attention."

The committee will decide on a recommendation to the governor, but there is no word yet on when that will happen.

Click here to view large portions of the historic 91,000 page New Jersey Racial Profiling Archive, released by the state attorney general's office in November 2000 and made available on the Internet by DRCNet.

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