Montana Jurors Just Say No to a Penny-Ante Pot Case

Last week a prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, agreed to a plea bargain after too many members of a jury pool rebelled at the idea of convicting someone for a felony in a case where police found a tiny amount of marijuana. As the defendant's attorney put it in a sentencing memorandum, "Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, is not supportive of the state's marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances." The prosecutor called it "a mutiny." The judge saw it as a sign of the times:

The attorneys and the judge all noted Missoula County's approval in 2006 of Initiative 2, which required law enforcement to treat marijuana crimes as their lowest priority—and also of the 2004 approval of a statewide medical marijuana ballot initiative.

And all three noticed the age of the members of the jury pool who objected. A couple looked to be in their 20s. A couple in their 40s. But one of the most vocal was in her 60s.

"It's kind of a reflection of society as a whole on the issue," said [District Judge Dusty] Deschamps.

Which begs a question, he said.

Given the fact that marijuana use became widespread in the 1960s, most of those early users are now in late middle age and fast approaching elderly.

Is it fair, Deschamps wondered, in such cases to insist upon impaneling a jury of "hardliners" who object to all drug use, including marijuana?

"I think that poses a real challenge in proceeding," he said. "Are we really seating a jury of their peers if we just leave people on who are militant on the subject?"

If you read all the way through the Missoulian story, you'll see that the defendant, who was charged with selling pot, also has a history of theft, drunk driving, and shirking his parental responsibilities. He got a one-year sentence under the plea bargain. Still, the fact that more than a quarter of the potential jurors wondered why the government was bothering with a penny-ante pot case is encouraging.

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  • Finchy||

    HAHA! Love the DrugFreeWorld.org ad I got with this article.

  • Finchy||

    "They said weed wouldn't lead to harder drugs... They lied."

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    These ads saved my life. Thanks to them I was able to skip weed and go straight to black tar heroin. God bless you drug Caesar!

  • Tamfang||

    An acquaintance once told me that LSD had been his gateway to pot. I repeated that to another, who pondered for a moment and said that cocaïne had been his gateway to good beer.

  • ||

    appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances

    He must have a different definition of "unbiased" than I do.

    To my mind, they got an unbiased jury, that is, one fairly reflective of the population at large. The proverbial "jury of your peers", in other words.

    A biased jury would have looked like this:

    a jury of "hardliners" who object to all drug use, including marijuana

  • Invisible Finger||

    What a prosecutor means by "unbiased": biased in my favor.

    I'd also like to know about the "drunk driving": was it real drunk driving or just this "driving 10 mph over the speed limit while .08" shit?

  • Rev.Rabbi Sharia-bin-Ayatollah||

    This is why only those educated in Divine Morality at the foot of God should judge others, and noone can judge them. Works great everywhere its tried...trust me as you'd trust God.

  • robc||

    That is basically what I said in the other thread. Agree entirely.

    Although I used death penalty cases as an example.

  • ||

    Are we really seating a jury of their peers if we just leave people on who are militant on the subject?

    +1

  • BakedPenguin||

    A judge who actually cares about justice. How did he get the job?

  • ||

    When we hear of stuff like this happening all over the country, that will be a good day.

  • ||

    Besides it's location, I'm still trying to figure out Montana's cons.

  • ||

    ...but that such a thing happened in that part of the country, on that day, makes IT a good day, too.

    In another thread on H&R, Libertarians were taunted for never celebrating the small successes. I argued that the incident in question wasn't really a success, just defeat dolled up for the cameras.

    In this case, however, we have a real success, albeit a very small one. I'm disappointed that the prosecutor didn't toss the case altogether, but that is the fault of our having too many laws and a prosecutorial branch that is thus empowered to haggle and wear down defendants. As far as the Drug War is concerned, though, the victory for liberty is real: People are going on the record as not supporting the law or the way it is enforced! And I celebrate that for the victory it is.

  • Tamfang||

    Very small successes like this one are necessary to the big success.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul.

    District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

    -
    Unless I'm reading that wrong, it appears the majority of potential jurors would still consider convicting the defendant.

  • ||

    As I read it, that's the number of people who wondered why they were prosecuting "at all." Some number of the remainder might agree that to prosecute it as a misdemeanor, but not as the felony that the prosecution was trying for.

  • ||

    Wonder how many hands go up if judge asks why the filth gets a showtrial at all.

  • ||

    A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

    So they were hard at work getting a biased jury, I see.

  • crazyfish||

    Yes for nullification! Now if only more and more jurors decided to nullify laws, they deem unjust.

  • Invisible Finger||

    This isn't nullification. They couldn't even find 12 jurors that agreed with the prosecutor before the trial even began.

    But we know what new law will happen next: potential jurors who don't agree with the prosecutor will be fined and subject to 400 hours of community service.

  • ||

    Jury nullification does NOT nullify law, it only nullifies the specific case before the jury.

    It's a three dollar phrase for "the jury voted not guilty". It's used solely as a signalling device to libertarians of the opposite gender.

  • IceTrey||

    "the original allegations were more serious – that Cornell was dealing"

    No, they were just as ridiculous as the possession charges.

  • Imp of the Perverse||

    Tax evasion!

  • Pimp of the Universe||

    No, that's just as ridiculous as the possession charges.

  • Richard||

    Still, the fact that more than a quarter of the potential jurors wondered why the government was bothering with a penny-ante pot case is encouraging.
    Because that's what prosecutors DO: charge every offense they can think of, including jaywalking, to leverage a plea. You don't think they want to TRY cases, do you? And worst case scenario, they figure at least one charge will stick, so they don't look stupid. It backfired this time.

  • JD||

    Well, he did end up pleading guilty to some of the charges so it didn't backfire completely.

  • Wind Rider||

    Article stated it was an Alford plea, which isn't the same thing. It doesn't admit guilt, but simply that the defendant acknowledges he probably can't contest the state's case.

  • juris imprudent||

    "Are we really seating a jury of their peers if we just leave people on who are militant on the subject?"

    I hate to harp on this, but it is so grating. You are not entitled to a "jury of your peers" in this country. The English Common Law provided that nobles could only be tried by nobles and commoners by commoners. That is what a jury of "your peers" means.

  • robc||

    As we have no nobles in America, and are thus all commoners, we are entitled to a "jury of our peers".

  • Atanarjuat||

    I saw a headline the other day "Prince [whoever] marries a commoner"...something you thankfully won't see printed here in the US.

  • Wind Rider||

    Well, one of my ex wives is convinced she's a fucking princess, so he's probably dodging a bullet with this move.

  • ||

    A bullet you obviously married willingly...

  • ||

    No nobles in America ... what a laugh. May not have the title, but they have the power

    On the other hand, maybe by "America" you are excluding DC and the federal govt.

  • SIV||

    If only there was a high profile political figure who strongly supported jury nullification

  • robc||

    As I said on the other thread, limit panels to about 18. If you cant find 12+alternates from 18, tough shit.

    If you arent related or friends with the accused or the victim, you are unbiased.

  • Tamfang||

    In a drug case, the victim is Society, with whom everyone is presumed to be acquainted; ergo, no eligible jurors!

  • ||

    Last week I was a member of a jury pool. The case was possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. I told the prosecutor straight out during voir dire that I would not consider even the highest or lowest sentencing (5 years) because it was a victimless crime and I couldn't morally justify sending this man to jail any more so than I could justify sending a bartender to jail. The judge looked at me like I was a heinous criminal and refused to let me speak the rest of the afternoon, even after he was whining about how there were too many people who disqualified themselves because they wouldn't consider sending the dude to jail for life or 99 years for coke dealing. I wanted to say that tying jurors' hands with mandatory sentencing prior to a trial (especially for victimless crimes) makes it more difficult for anyone besides than the harshest drug warriors to take the law very seriously - and therefore to seat a jury.

    I guess I could have kept my trap shut and tried to get on the jury in order to try to get him off, but that would have involved violating juror ethics even though it is the moral thing to do in this case. They make a sham of the rule of law when they craft such arbitrary and unjust standards for the law.

  • JoshINHB||

    I told the prosecutor straight out during voir dire that I would not consider even the highest or lowest sentencing (5 years) because it was a victimless crime and I couldn't morally justify sending this man to jail any more so than I could justify sending a bartender to jail. The judge looked at me like I was a heinous criminal and refused to let me speak the rest of the afternoon, even after he was whining about how there were too many people who disqualified themselves because they wouldn't consider sending the dude to jail for life or 99 years for coke dealing. I wanted to say that tying jurors' hands with mandatory sentencing prior to a trial

    That kind of bullshit is flat out jury tampering and would be punishable with imprisonment in a just country.

    I guess I could have kept my trap shut and tried to get on the jury in order to try to get him off, but that would have involved violating juror ethics even though it is the moral thing to do in this case. They make a sham of the rule of law when they craft such arbitrary and unjust standards for the law.

    Yep, the system is such a sham that a moral person is obliged to lie in some situations in order to subvert the larger injustice of the system.

  • robc||

    violating juror ethics even though it is the moral thing

    Unlike the judge and lawyers, ethics doesnt apply to you, you didnt choose to become a juror, you were drafted. Morality clearly trumps ethics in that case.

  • ||

    Is your voir dire statement made in front of other potential jurors? I'd love to be able to make that statement in front of everyone else who could possibly end up on that jury.

  • ||

    Yes. They all kind of gasped, because although others had expressed similar concerns about the mandatory minimum, none so bluntly.

  • ||

    .."In times of tyranny and injustice when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history."

  • ||

    Bravo for the Montana Judge and Jury!

    Boo for the reporter who wrote: "Which begs a question"

    The jurors' opinions may prompt a question, lead to a question, or imply a question, but they don't beg a question.

  • MisterDamage||

    It wasn't a reporter who wrote it, it was "District Judge Dusty Deschamps"

    In a way, that's worse. One expects better education out of our jurists.

  • Tamfang||

    The reporter said that the judge said it, but it's not a direct quotation; it could be a paraphrase.

    Either way, despite my general pedantry I'm liberal on this point. If the narrow meaning of "beg the question" can't be inferred from the literal meaning of the words, why insist on it? Let petitio principii find a clearer phrase.

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