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Marijuana: Denver DA Mitch Morrissey to drop pot cases legal under Amendment 64

Update: Yesterday, Boulder ACLU head Judd Golden praised Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett for directing his office to drop prosecutions of pot cases that will become legal once Amendment 64 is signed into law; see our original post below. He also expressed mystification over why Garnett's counterpart in Denver, Mitch Morrissey, had not made a similar announcement. But now, Morrissey has -- and he's not the only one.

As you'll recall, Morrissey publicly opposed Amendment 64 at an October press event sponsored by Smart Colorado, the leading No on 64 organization. He joined Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson, Broomfield Chief of Police Thomas Deland and Vicki Ferrari, boardmember of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association (and former American Gladiators contestant) on the State Capitol steps, with Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hillkey appearing at a separate event in Palisade, on the Western Slope. Afterward, Smart Colorado released the following quote from Morrissey:

"Amendment 64 would amend our overburdened Colorado Constitution and cause endless litigation. Amendment 64 will cost Colorado taxpayers money because of this litigation, and because it's a constitutional amendment it can't be fixed by the legislature. Drug policy does not belong in the Constitution."

Despite this argument, Colorado voters approved the measure -- and while Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, an even earlier critic of Amendment 64 , has said he'll continue to prosecute current cases until Governor John Hickenlooper inks the act, on or before the first week of January, Morrissey appears to be opting for a more cost-effective approach. Earlier this week, DA's office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said the matter would be discussed in the coming days -- and now, Morrissey has reportedly decided against moving forward with any future pot cases, and will review about seventy others presently in the pipeline.

Stan Hilkey.
Stan Hilkey.

Of the latter, those that deal with possession of an ounce or less for individuals age 21 and over are expected to be tossed, although some could linger if they're accompanied by additional charges on other matters.

Meanwhile, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel notes that the police department in its hometown has told officers to stop issuing citations for adult possession of weed in amounts that will be legal under the amendment.

In addition, aforementioned sheriff and 64 opponent Hilkey is ready to comply as well, albeit with reluctance of the sort illustrated by Buck. He's quoted as telling the Sentinel, "Whether we go earlier or later, we're all going along with the intent of coming into compliance when the law becomes law."

Continue to read our interview with the ACLU's Judd Golden about the wisdom of dropping pending marijuana cases that would be legal under Amendment 64.

Original post, 12:40 p.m. November 15: Yesterday, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett announced that his office wouldn't prosecute pot offenses that will be legal once Amendment 64 is signed into law. Garnett's actions won praise in a letter written by Judd Golden, head of Boulder's ACLU; see it below. However, he's frustrated that more agencies have yet to follow his lead.

"The voters have spoken, and there are other priorities out there," says Golden.

This viewpoint isn't universally accepted. Moments ago, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a vocal critic of Amendment 64, released remarks stressing that his office isn't ready to walk away from any pot cases just yet. The statement reads:

"Our office has an obligation to prosecute offenses that were crimes at the time they occurred. Accordingly, we will not be dismissing existing marijuana possession cases. But more importantly, our office prosecutes low-level possession cases to get drug users help with their addictions. That practice will continue until state law changes."

The logic of such an approach escapes Golden.

"I think practicalities are what motivated District Attorney Garnett," he maintains. "To say, 'I suppose we could make the charge, but what are the chances of getting a conviction? And if someone were to request a jury trial, what are the chances of getting a conviction when the world knows this isn't an offense anymore?'

"The mentality of many people in law enforcement is, 'I enforce the law, and that's currently the law, and when the law changes, I'll stop enforcing it,'" he goes on. "And I understand that -- to not make value judgments and simply enforce the laws as written. Which is why you should go up the food chain to those who actually have to try to get convictions. They're the people who should be telling law enforcement, 'Don't make these charges, because we can't get convictions.' That would seem to be the correct way for law enforcement to operate, and the correct way for the prosecution of those charges to be handled."

Maybe so, but as William Breathes reported yesterday, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office is not planning to alter its tactics until after Amendment 64 is signed, likely by or before the first week of January. And while the Denver District Attorney's Office hasn't been as definitive on the issue thus far (discussions are planned for this week), no move to drop cases has been made to date. And few police departments in these parts have joined the Boulder Police Department in announcing that they will no longer issue citations on such matters.

"We've heard that Longmont has decided not to do any enforcement," Golden says, "and they're going to re-craft their ordinance so it will comply with Amendment 64. But those municipalities that don't have their own ordinance are at the mercy of the DA to make charging decisions."

That's fine, in Golden's view, in the case of Boulder County: "If, for example, Erie, which doesn't have its own ordinance, has its police making charges, they'll take them to the DA, who'll say, 'We're not going to prosecute this. Why waste your time?'" But in counties whose district attorneys aren't yet backing down, the continuing pot-law enforcement efforts are, in his view, pointless.

Continue to read more of our interview with Boulder ACLU's Judd Golden.

Granted, Golden isn't an entirely neutral observer when it comes to Amendment 64. As he points out, "I've been working on this kind of thing since 1975. I started the NORML chapter in Iowa, and we got marijuana decriminalized there in 1978 -- no jail, no criminal record -- because a Republican legislator's son got busted. He made an impassioned speech and got the other Republicans on board, and it just sailed right through. When things like that hit home, the world changes for people."

But while he considers Amendment 64's passage to represent "an amazing transformation of public attitudes," he sees an awkward period ahead, given the large amount of confusion over what the measure actually does.

"The public needs to know that Amendment 64 didn't legalize all marijuana-related activities -- and if someone is publicly consuming marijuana, that's still an offense," he says. "Now, whether a charge of that nature would have much chance of being successfully prosecuted is another matter. It's hard to know if the public would appreciate the distinction between having a joint in your pocket or a lit joint in your hand, and I'd be surprised if convictions could be gotten very easily in the absence of aggravating circumstances. But even after Amendment 64 is signed, smoking marijuana in public will still be against the law in the same way that you can have a beer in your pocket but not drink it on the street corner."

Likewise, he goes on, "quantities of marijuana in excess of an ounce remain against the law. So, as with any new law or new constitutional amendment such as this, there's going to be a learning curve. There was a lot of misinformation on both sides that surrounded this campaign; we certainly heard a lot of horror stories about what would take place if this passed. I've been answering a lot of inquiries to dispel those concerns, but there still needs to be a public-education process, so people can understand and make sure they're complying with the law."

Continue to see Golden's November 14 letter to Boulder's City Attorney, followed by an addendum.

Boulder ACLU letter:

To: Boulder City Attorney, Boulder City Council, Boulder Chief of Police

From: Boulder County ACLU

Subj: City Should Dismiss Pending Marijuana Possession Cases

The Boulder County Chapter of the ACLU of Colorado urges Boulder to follow Boulder County and Denver and dismiss any pending Boulder city criminal cases against people over 21 charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The voters of Boulder overwhelmingly supported Amendment 64. It will make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana legal in Colorado for those over 21 when signed by the Governor in a few weeks.

The ACLU of Colorado also supported this measure. Marijuana prohibition denies civil liberties and disproportionately impacts minorities.

Boulder County DA Stan Garnett said today he will end all prosecutions for marijuana possession. The Boulder City Attorney should do the same, with the support of City Council.

The ACLU is pleased that Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner agrees, as stated in today's Daily Camera:

"We will not be issuing any summonses for the offenses cited by the Boulder DA," Beckner said. "We had already told our officers it was a waste of time to issue summonses for those offenses anyway, given the passage of the amendment."

Addendum:

Boulder City Attorney Tom Carr responded to the ACLU's request below by noting that the City of Boulder does not have a separate city ordinance against possession of marijuana. Marijuana possession cases charged by the Boulder Police are prosecuted by the District Attorney, who said today that there will be no more prosecutions and pending cases will be dismissed.

This makes the decision of Boulder Police Chief Mark Beckner to stop charging people with simple possession of marijuana all the more significant.

However, some Boulder County cities, like Lafayette and Longmont, do have city ordinances criminalizing marijuana possession or possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

The ACLU urges prosecutors and law enforcement in these and all municipalities in Boulder County to follow the lead of the District Attorney and the Boulder Police Chief and dismiss any pending marijuana possession and paraphernalia charges, and to not file future charges, for conduct that will become constitutionally protected under Amendment 64.

Boulder County ACLU

by Judd Golden, Chapter Chair

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Boulder DA drops pot, paraphernalia cases due to Amendment 64's passage."


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