Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Springfield judge on side of common sense; marijuana law goes back to committee

Seems like I'm having an exceptionally busy week but I want to find time to remark on two events in Springfield, MA this Monday.

First, Councilor James Ferrara's attempt to circumvent new state law by making marijuana an arrestable offense-- as well as increasing the fine by $300-- was sent back to committee Monday night after possibly more opposition than expected.

Ferrara said he's heard that Chicopee, a neighboring city, was planning to increase fines for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and he didn't want Springfield to become a haven for pot smokers. Yup, that's right, all the area pot smokers, whether they reside in Springfield, Chicopee or not, are going to say, Hmmm...$300 fine in Chicopee, $100 fine in Springfield.....Let's all head to Springfield to smoke a joint. Yes, indeed, Springfield is a haven for pot smokers.....

The ACLU's Bill Newman said increasing the fine would likely clog the court system, as a $100 fine is payable but a $400 fine might go unpaid. Newman was representing a group I'd never heard of, the Liberty Preservation Association of Massachusetts, Inc., which seems to be Libertarian, and about a dozen of whose members also came to the City Council hearing.

A considerably more controversial event came about after Judge Cornelius J. Moriarty II threw out evidence against a suspected drug trafficker, saying that he did not believe the testimony of two of the arresting officers. That's the third time in recent months that a Hampden Superior Court judge has refused to believe evidence presented by officers, and the second time for Moriarty. Unfortunately, in the first case, the man who was set free then went on to kill another man at Springfield's Mardi Gras strip club this past January. I'm sure that case was on Moriarty's mind when he made his ruling on Monday; he knew he'd be wide open to criticism, but still he did what he thought was the right thing. the Springfield Republican reported on police reaction and anger here.

Debate on the local forums has been pretty one-sided, with most people saying the judge was clearly on the side of the criminals, and only a few pointing out that no, the judge was on the side of the law. Moral of the story: if you want to arrest someone and have the charges stick, you've got to do it the right way.

You know that moment in life where something you've always believed is overturned by personal experience? My own very minor experience of an arrest for possession of marijuana became one of those "Aha!" moments.

Forty years ago, when it really did seem like a revolution was around the corner two friends and I were sitting in a parked car in Cambridge, MA and we had just finished smoking a joint. We had about another quarter ounce in the glove box, but otherwise, no marijuana was visible.

Suddenly a police officer knocked on the window of the car, and as we rolled down the window, I imagine he was hit with a strong whiff of an illegal substance. He told us that he was going to arrest all three of us then and there, but that it would go easier on us in court if we just turned over anything we had rather than making him search, and like idiots, we did.

Flash forward to our day in court, where we had a public defender and a little better sense of our rights but were still basically naive-- 3 eighteen year old white kids.

The officer was called to testify, and the ADA asked him the circumstances of our arrests.

"I was walking by the car and could smell marijuana. I looked in the window of the car," he said, "and I could see a bag of marijuana right there on the seat."

Well, we were so astounded at his lie that we let out three very audible gasps. The judge let the case finish up and then found us not guilty, clearly not believing the testimony of the arresting officer. What a relief.

That was the end of my belief that all police officers always tell the truth. I have not replaced it with a belief that all police officers always lie, but through the years I've personally been aware of at least thirty similar situations, not counting those I've learned about through the media.

I have a flare and a fondness for the law which probably started when I was a kid reading about Clarence Darrow's great labor and criminal cases. I do believe unjust laws are made to be broken and I know that sentiment is not limited to my generation. But I respect the intent of the law, which, at its best, is simply a set of rules defined collectively about how we live in a fair and safe society.

My message to the criminal justice system is simple: If you want to enforce the law, do it by following the law.

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