Chris Bartkowicz: Plea shows jailed MMJ grower thought he was following CO law, Obama memo

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Update: Westword has obtained the plea agreement signed by Chris Bartkowicz, the Highlands Ranch home grower brought up on federal drug charges even though he said he was growing marijuana for medical purposes. The document, on view below in its entirety, shows that he was confident from the beginning he'd done nothing wrong.

Bartkowicz was jailed yesterday, and he must remain behind bars until January 28, when he'll learn if a judge will accept a deal for a five-year sentence -- a scenario he clearly didn't anticipate following a February search of his home, as demonstrated by the Chris Bartkowicz signed plea agreement.

The document's narrative notes that Bartkowicz was "very calm and composed" when he sat down with agents Mark Kopper and Matt Stoneberger. He told Stoneberger "he thought he was in compliance with state law and when DEA agents asked to come in and see his marijuana plants, he was fine with that but he did not foresee them considering his marijuana grow to be illegal," the agreement states.

He subsequently told Kopper "he was aware that marijuana was 'federally illegal,' but based on 'Holder's' and/or 'Obama's' announcement or memorandum, he though that federal law enforcement would no longer be expending assets in those states where marijuana is 'legal.'"

This comment is a reference to an October 2009 memo by deputy U.S. attorney general David Ogden, representing the Obama administration's Justice Department, directing federal agents not to spend precious resources going after "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

Questions have been raised about whether Bartkowicz was following all of Colorado's rules pertaining to his ratio of plants to patients, among other things. But a September ruling precluded him from using Colorado's medical marijuana laws as a defense, rendering such arguments moot -- and leading to a plea agreement that's still unofficial.

Page down to read the plea agreement in its entirety, as well as to read updates on the most recent developments in the Bartkowicz case:

Update, October 21: Today, as expected, Highlands Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz entered three guilty pleas in regard to federal charges related to marijuana cultivation. But Judge Philip Brimmer has not formally accepted a stipulated five-year plea agreement and isn't expected to do so prior to a January 28 sentencing. In the meantime, Brimmer sent Bartkowicz directly to jail.

To put it mildly, this turn of events came as a surprise to both Bartkowicz and his attorney, Joseph Saint-Veltri. Indeed, Saint-Veltri reveals that Bartkowicz was "planning to say something" on his way out of the courtroom -- but he never got the chance.

Why was Bartkowicz jailed, rather than being allowed to remain at large until the sentencing? "Under what is known as the amendments to the Bail Reform Act, if you plead guilty to a controlled substance offense that carries a maximum penalty of ten years or more, you are to be detained," Saint-Veltri says.

In the face of the rule, "we argued that there is no actual ten-years-or-more sentence in this case, because the judge's only options are to give him five years or let him withdraw his pleas of guilty, and therefore, the statute did not apply," Saint-Veltri continues. "But the judge was unpersuaded, as is evidenced by the fact that Bartkowicz is now in custody."

Judge Brimmer can refuse to accept the plea agreement at the January 28 hearing -- and if he does so, Bartkowicz can withdraw his guilty pleas and proceed to trial, where he would face a mandatory sentence of sixty years due to multipliers in place related to the proximity of the home grow to a school and past convictions.

Bartkowicz will now spend more than three months behind bars pondering this prospect. Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney John Walsh has issued a statement presupposing that Brimmer will go along with the deal. It reads:

Today Christopher Bartkowicz pled guilty to all three counts related to marijuana cultivation as charged by a federal grand jury. In response, the government withdrew the sentencing enhancement regarding one of the defendant's prior felony drug convictions. If the plea agreement is ultimately accepted by the judge, Bartkowicz faces a mandatory minimum of 5 years in federal prison. That sentence is appropriate and proportionate given the circumstances of this specific crime.

If there's any good news for Bartkowicz in this situation -- or at least less-bad news -- it's that "the Bureau of Prisons usually awards an inmate the time he has spent in pre-trial detention," Saint-Veltri says. "Or, in this case, pre-sentencing detention."

Find the original items below.

Update, October 20, 3:52 p.m.: Since the original version of this post went live at 1:15 p.m. today, I've had a chance to speak at greater length with Joseph Saint-Veltri, attorney for Highlands Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz, who faces federal marijuana cultivation charges in relation to a home grow he showed off to a 9News reporter earlier this year. He confirms a guilty plea in exchange for a stipulated sentence of sixty months, or five years.

Saint-Veltri stresses that Judge Philip Brimmer must sign off on the agreement in order for it to move forward. As for the decision to reach such a compromise with prosecutors, he says Brimmer's decision to nix a medical-marijuana defense at a September hearing made moving forward all but impossible.

"The trial would have proceeded based on the court's rulings -- as if Amendment 20 did not exist," he says, referring to the 2000 measure that legalized MMJ in Colorado. Saint-Veltri offered numerous arguments on Bartkowicz's behalf at the earlier hearing, he continues, "but every one of them was sort of connected to Amendment 20 in some way."

The result would have forced an unfortunate flashback.

"When we did these kinds of cases before Amendment 20, they looked a certain way," he notes. "And this one would have looked the same way."

Look below to read the earlier item:

Original item: October 20, 1:15 p.m.:

The February arrest of Highlands Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz shortly after he showed off his home grow to 9News has become a controversy lightning rod in the local medical marijuana community, since he's staring at a mandatory sixty-year sentence. Now, however, it appears that he's going to plead guilty on Thursday in relation to the charges against him.

That's the word from Joseph Saint-Veltri, Bartkowicz's attorney, who says "I can confirm that there is a hearing scheduled at 1 p.m. tomorrow for a change of plea for Judge [Philip] Brimmer" in U.S. District Court. Saint-Veltri declines to offer further details, but given that Bartkowicz had previously registered as not guilty, the plea change can logically go only one other direction.

The probable reason for such a switch? In a September hearing, Brimmer ruled that Bartkowicz couldn't use a medical marijuana defense in the case, which finds him facing federal charges. While Colorado has legalized medical marijuana, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 narcotic by the feds' standards, meaning it's illegal for any use.

Brimmer's ruling left Saint-Veltri and Bartkowicz with few options other than to try to strike a deal with prosecutors. It will be interesting to see if attorneys representing the U.S. government seek to make an example out of Bartkowicz via a sentence heavy on jail time.

Page down to see photos from a September rally in support of Bartkowicz:

More from our Marijuana archive: "Rob Corry says Chris Bartkowicz medical marijuana bust proof the DEA has gone rogue."

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