Category Archives: Bad Court Decisions

The Necessity Defense for Medical Marijuana Patients – 2015 Minnesota Proposed Legislation HF 542 – SF 404 Redux

The problem:  In Minnesota today, a medical marijuana patient charged with a marijuana crime is no longer allowed by the courts to tell the jury they were treating illness with marijuana.

shhhhThe solution:  A Bill in the 2015 Legislature would legislatively overrule the court decision that took away “the necessity defense” from medical marijuana patients facing marijuana charges.

Marijuana has been used as effective medicine for thousands of years.  In the 1930s, Minnesota joined a social experiment of Prohibition outlawing the plant – even for medical use. Today though, a majority in the U.S.A. believe that medical marijuana should not be a crime.

Trial by jury limits the power of the government to enforce laws in ways that violate the conscience of the community.  Yet when a chronic pain patient using marijuana as medicine is charged with a marijuana crime, but is not permitted to have their physician testify, or to testify about it themselves; there is no meaningful jury trial.  When the court prevents the jury from hearing defense evidence, excluding the defense, her right to present a defense is violated.

“Necessity” has been a recognized legal defense to what otherwise would be a crime, since ancient times. The New Testament cites examples of eating holy bread through necessity of hunger or taking another’s corn. Mathew 12:3-4. Old English cases recognize the defense of necessity. It was a defense to breaking a law that the accused committed the act to save a life or put out a fire. A person did not commit the misdemeanor of exposing an infected person in public if the person was being carried through the streets to a doctor.

  1. Like self-defense, the necessity defense is an affirmative defense to a criminal charge – a “lesser-of-two-evils” defense. After the accused presents evidence supporting the defense, the judge instructs the jury on the law of the defense of necessity.  If the jury accepts the defense: the defendant did the prohibited act intentionally, but did so reasonably to avoid a greater evil, out of necessity; so it is not a crime.
  2. The necessity defense was repealed by a 1991 Minnesota court decision, in State v. Hanson, 468 NW 2d 77 (Minn Court of Appeals 1991). FFI: http://wp.me/pAFjr-5U
  3. The Minnesota Legislature can restore the rights to a jury trial and to present a defense by passing HF 542 & SF 404. The Bill restores the necessity defense to medical marijuana patients charged with a marijuana crime.  Jurors have the right to know the relevant facts before judging a person’s fate.
  4. People like Angela Brown, and her 15 year-old son, should be allowed to present a necessity defense at her trial, so the jury can then have the power to decide her case based upon the true facts, not some version of the truth manipulated by the court.

Urge your Minnesota Rep. and State Senator to support the necessity defense Bill,  HF 542SF 404, to assure medical patients have the “right to introduce evidence or testimony of a medical need to use, … or [evidence of] a benefit derived from the use” of marijuana or derivatives.

Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Marijuana Lawyer working in criminal defense.

Marijuana Medical Necessity: Why Minnesota Needs a New Law Affirming Your Right to Present a Medical Necessity Defense to a Marijuana Charge

Minnesota needs to adopt a new statute affirming your right to present the defense of medical necessity to a marijuana criminal-charge.  Why?

Marijuana, or cannabis, has been used by humans as medicine for thousands of years successfully for relief and treatment of disease.  Modern medical research, as well as clinical practice, has proven its efficacy in relieving symptoms as well as curing diseases — from the bothersome all the way to cancer.

Marijuana had never been a crime.  But beginning in the 1930s in the United States, as the alcohol Prohibition regime was disintegrating, a new experiment in Prohibition was being developed to replace it — the marijuana Prohibition.  Marijuana was widely used as medicine at the time, and its medicinal use persisted for decades but was eventually driven underground after increased criminalization policies in the United States, and in Minnesota.  Its use, including medical use, continued but was made criminal.

Necessity has been a recognized legal defense to what otherwise would be a crime, since ancient times.  In The Defense of Necessity in Criminal Law: The Right to Choose the Lesser Evil some of this history is summarized:

The English courts stated the principle of necessity in 1551 in Reninger v. Fagossa (1 Plowd. 1, 75 Eng. Rep. 1): “A man may break the words of the law, and yet not break the law itself … where the words of them are broken to avoid greater inconvenience, or through necessity, or by compulsion.” The case cites the New Testament example of eating sacred bread through necessity of hunger or taking another’s corn. Mathew 12:3-4. Older English cases contain many examples which recognize the general principle of necessity. It was a defense to breaking a law that the person committed the act to save a life or put out a fire. Jurors could depart without the permission of the judge in case of emergency. Prisoners might escape from a burning jail without committing a crime. A person did not commit the misdemeanor of exposing an infected person in public if the person was being carried through the streets to a doctor.

The necessity defense is sometimes called the lesser-of-two-evils defense.  It is often a justification type defense.  If the defense is accepted by the jury, it does not mean the defendant did not intentionally do the prohibited act, but rather that he or she reasonably did so to avoid a greater evil, out of necessity.  It is a common law defense — old and widely accepted.  Like many other common law defenses, it has often been codified in statutes over the past several decades, in many jurisdictions.

med-mj-mn-signThe term “medical necessity defense” is a special application of the more general, necessity defense.  If you are sick with glaucoma or cancer and marijuana provides you with relief or cure, even though marijuana may be a crime to possess or grow in some states, you may decide that preserving your health (or your child’s life) is a greater necessity than complying with the criminal Prohibition.  The majority of people in the United States today, according to poll after poll, agree that medical use of marijuana should not be a crime.  As a result it is likely that many if not most jurors may share that majority view, that medical marijuana is not a real crime.  But in Minnesota jurors are not currently empowered to decide cases with all of the evidence.

Since you are constitutionally guaranteed the right to a jury trial, and the right to present a complete defense — to present the jury with your true defense, for the jury to do with it as it will —  how could it be that the Minnesota appellate courts have so far held that you have no right to present a medical necessity defense in a marijuana case?

To find out, you can read the Minnesota Court of Appeals case from 1991, State v. Hanson.  Though every court case is fact specific to a great extent, the court’s main rationales in the State v. Hanson case are captured in this excerpt:

“The statutory classification of marijuana as a Schedule I substance implies a determination that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States.” Minn.Stat. § 152.02, subd. 7(1) (1990). The legislature has enacted a single exception, in the THC Therapeutic Research Act (TRA), exempting from criminal sanctions possession or use of marijuana for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy who are receiving the drug under the strict controls of an approved medical research program. Minn. Stat. § 152.21, subds. 1, 3, 6 (1990). These statutory provisions demonstrate that the legislature has specifically addressed and determined the possible medical uses of marijuana.”

The first point, that marijuana has been classified by Minnesota as “a Schedule I substance” meaning they claim that it has “no currently accepted medical use in the United States,” if it has ever been true, is certainly not true today.  Though marijuana is still arbitrarily classified by Minnesota as “Schedule I,” the majority of the United States population now lives in states with legal medical marijuana programs, and marijuana is now currently accepted as having medical use — including by the United States Surgeon General.

The second argument advanced in Hanson, was that since the Minnesota legislature had enacted THC Therapeutic Research Act (which created a “research” program so restrictive that nothing ever came of it); that therefore the legislature must have intended to preclude any other consideration of any other exception or defense for medical use of marijuana (though it never said so).  Not particularly persuasive here, the argument is of the classic rhetorical form — expressio unius est exclusio alterius, a Latin phase meaning “the expression of one thing is the exclusion of the other.”

The Hanson case was from 1991.  Much has changed since then, politically, legally, and in the medical research community, has it not?  So would a modern Minnesota appellate court right this 1991 wrong?  In 2014, it didn’t. In a 2014 decision the Minnesota Supreme Court, in State v. Thiel left intact the Schedule I classification despite a constitutional challenge by a defendant convicted of marijuana possession who had not been allowed to let the jury know the truth about his medical  condition, his medical recommendation for marijuana as medicine, or his California medical marijuana card.

It seems reasonable to conclude then, that the Minnesota courts are unlikely to remedy this injustice and restore our right to a fair jury trial, and our right to present a complete defense in Minnesota — at least not in the near term.

That is why we need the Minnesota legislature to restore some measure of Liberty and Justice in Minnesota, by passing a Bill for a new statute guaranteeing your right to let the jury hear the truth, that medical marijuana is a lesser evil (if it is an evil at all) than violating the criminal law prohibiting marijuana.

The Bill currently in the Minnesota legislature would restore the necessity defense to medical marijuana patients charged with a marijuana crime in Minnesota.  It would guarantee that the accused could use this as an affirmative defense — meaning the defendant would have the burden of showing prima facie evidence of medical necessity, and if successful, the ultimate burden of proving criminal guilt would then shift to the prosecution.  This would help restore the right to a jury trial to an extent as well.  The jurors have the right to hear the truth before condemning a person.

Contact your Minnesota House of Representatives member, your Minnesota State Senator, and the Governor to urge support of the medical necessity Bill, HF 542.

Thomas Gallagher is a Minnesota Marijuana Lawyer with a criminal defense practice based in Minneapolis.

Legislative Update: The Minnesota Bong Water Crime Case

Remember the recent Minnesota Supreme Court case that took a literal interpretation of a statute – to an absurd result – ruling that water could enhance the severity of a drug crime?  It was a bare majority decision, 4-3, with a concurring opinion and strongly worded dissents.  After the majority, concurring and dissenting opinions are all tallied, five out of seven wrote that the legislature should amend the statute to cure the injustice.  The case ruled that Bong Water (water used in a water pipe) was a “mixture” of “25 grams or more” supporting a criminal conviction for Controlled Substance crime in the first degree (30 years of prison maximum), though it contained only trace amounts of illegal drugs.

Tap Water Contains Drugs

The case is Minnesota v  Peck, Minnesota Supreme Court, October 22, 2009.  The blog article here, written the day the opinion was published is: Minnesota Court Waters Down Legal Definition of Illegal Drugs: Toilet Water Now Criminal to Possess.

The case gained worldwide infamy.  If trace amounts of criminalized drugs in bong water could be a crime based upon the weight of the water “mixture,” then would not trace amounts of illegal drugs in our drinking water also be a crime to possess?  And if that is the case, which of course it must be, then is not every citizen of Minnesota a drug criminal – by virtue of possessing river sourced tap water?  (Those with well water presumably can rest easy, without fear of a drug-police home invasion.)

A Bill in now being considered by the Minnesota Legislature, for the Safe Drug Disposal Act is an attempt to ameliorate the problem of pharmaceutical drugs in our drinking water supply, and rivers.  It is a crime in Minnesota to possess prescription drugs without a prescription for those drugs.

Will Minnesota lawmakers heed the call of the Minnesota Supreme Court and public outrage and undo the “Minnesota Bong Water Case?”

A Bill has been introduced in the Minnesota House, H.F. No. 2757, to amend Minnesota Statutes section 152.01, subdivision 9a, to read:

Subd. 9a.  Mixture.  “Mixture” means a preparation, compound, mixture, or substance containing a controlled substance, regardless of where purity is relevant only when weighing the residue of a controlled substance.

If adopted into law, this would bring back proportionality of the severity of a drug crime to quantity.

Advocates of drug legalization (regulation and taxation) may have mixed feelings about this reform.  Yes – it would cure an outlandish, gross injustice to people facing exaggerated convictions and prison terms based upon possession of water or other non-drug media.  On the other hand, the Prohibitionists really shot themselves in the foot on this one.  The Minnesota Bong Water case has helped undermine what public confidence there was in criminal drug laws and their enforcement.  As stated in the dissent in the Peck case:

“The majority’s decision to permit bong water to be used to support a first-degree felony controlled-substance charge runs counter to the legislative structure of our drug laws, does not make common sense, and borders on the absurd…the result is a decision that has the potential to undermine public confidence in our criminal justice system.”

To the extent the public confidence in our criminal justice system is undermined by Peck, the Minnesota Bong Water Case, and its literal interpretation of the statutory definition of a drug; this may hasten the day when common sense will finally prevail, with the Repeal of all drug Prohibition laws in Minnesota.

Written by Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney.

Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse under DWI Car Forfeiture Statute

Today the Minnesota Supreme Court released a decision interpreting a Minnesota Statute in a way to deprive an innocent spouse of their legal right to keep their car, jointly owned by a spouse who drove it in violation of a law.   The Case, David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, A07-2023, December 17, 2009, was another 4-3 split and splintered decision – with the majority reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, to rule against the civil property rights of the individual.

Divorce to Protect Your Property?

The court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), does not apply in a case of joint ownership of a vehicle if one of the joint owners is also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle.

The majority’s new rule is that all joint owners of a motor vehicle must be innocent in order for any owner to employ the innocent owner defense in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).

As Justice Paul Anderson points out in his dissent,

“The context of the case before us involves a DWI forfeiture statute that contemplates both the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit motor vehicles used in the commission of designated offenses and protection for innocent motor vehicle owners. Thus, the context within which we must conduct our analysis is a disfavored forfeiture statute that we must strictly construe which means that if we have any doubt about the application of the statute, that doubt is to be resolved in favor of joint owner … .”

The case involves Minnesota’s DWI forfeiture statute which creates both a presumption that a person arrested for suspected DWI will forfeit their car to the State; and also contains an affirmative defense for innocent owners of cars driven by someone else arrested for suspected DWI.  What about the case where a car is jointly owned by two or more people, such as the family car that the non-offending spouse needs to get to work?

Justice Page concludes his dissent with:

“I would construe the word ‘owner’ to refer to each individual owner throughout section 169A.63. Thus, under subdivision 7(d), a vehicle is not subject to forfeiture if any of its owners can demonstrate that he or she, individually, did not know the vehicle would be used contrary to law. Similarly, under subdivision 7(d), it is up to each of the owners to demonstrate that he or she ‘took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.’ An owner that can make the required showing cannot be divested of his or her interest in the vehicle, which subdivision 1(h) instructs extends to the whole of the vehicle. Because Mr. Laase made the required showing, I would hold that his interest in the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture.”

Is this another bad 4-3 splintered decision, with the slim majority again ruling against the rights of the individual?  So it would seem.  At least in this unjust situation, the Minnesota legislature could fix it next legislative session by amending the statute the court was interpreting.

Will the legislature repair this injustice in the law?  Public anger has been building for years over the use of asset forfeiture laws to legally steal private property, with the excuse of some crime having been committed, or the possibility of one.  The most frequent use of these laws has been in the areas of Minnesota asset forfeitures in drug cases, and in DWI cases.  Most of the injustices in these laws are common to all types of asset forfeiture statutes (whether based upon drugs, DWI or prostitution).  The innocent owner issue is only one of many.

One of these issues is the conflict of interest created by allowing the law enforcement agency which legally steals the property from the citizen, to keep much of the money proceeds from that seizure and forfeiture.  Two of the Justices concurring with the majority in David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe highlighted the issue, in Justice Barry Anderson’s concurrence:

“[T]here is reason to question the balance struck by the legislature between various competing interests.  For example, given the general disfavor of forfeiture statutes, the wisdom of vesting the right to possession of a forfeited vehicle in the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest of a defendant and the forfeiture of a defendant‘s vehicle is not immediately evident. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.63, subds. 1(b), 2, and 3 (2008).  But such issues are for the legislature to address, not this court.

The 4-3 majority opinion, was supported by two concurring Justices who wrote, in essence, that the law  was unfair and should be changed – but by the legislature not the court (see quote above).  The three dissenting Justices also noted the serious unfairness of the statute as interpreted by the majority opinion.  Therefore five of the seven essentially agreed on one thing – the statute allowing the government to take the private property of an innocent spouse or other co-owner is unfair and should be changed.

This issue was referenced in a recent article in the Star Tribune newspaper, Crime fighters gone rogue, where a  leader of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force explained in relation to financial stress due to underfunding from the legislature, he:

“… turned in 2003 to the only major source of cash he could find: money seized from suspected drug dealers, gang members and other targets. Over the next two years, Ryan told state examiners, his unit survived on virtually nothing else.

‘We had no money and we were begging, borrowing and I hesitate to say stealing, that would be the wrong place, but … that’s the way we were operating,’ Ryan said, according to a transcript of his formal interview with the Legislative Auditor’s Office.”

Is it fair to law enforcement officers to create laws like this with inherent conflicts of interest – inciting them to take from the poor, and give to their own agency of the government?  Can a normal human be completely immune to such powerful temptations?  Why should Minnesota laws encourage such mischief upon the individual people of Minnesota?

Let’s see if the Minnesota legislature will reform forfeiture laws in Minnesota this year.

By Thomas C. Gallagher, a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.

The Trial of Jesus: A Criminal Law Perspective

trial of jesus

Witnesses Against Jesus

The Trial of Jesus is the most famous trial in history – really, two trials. From a criminal law perspective, the trials are fascinating for many reasons, on many levels. This article is based upon a book The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth by Law Professor Max Radin published by the University of Chicago Press in 1931. Radin brings a lawyer’s eye to the historical record, from Christian, Roman, and Jewish sources, as well as succinctly developing the context. A few areas of interest to be discussed here include:

  • The Snitch identifies Jesus and betrays him, but later refuses to testify.
  • Prosecutor asks “why would they lie?”
  • Jesus pleads the Fifth
  • The Witness Corroboration Rule more stringent then, than now
  • Politics influences criminal law
  • Death Penalty for slaves and foreigners, not Romans

The most credible Christian Gospel and likely the oldest written is “Mark.” His account contains the most attention to detail and reflects the best understanding of the laws and procedures of the both the Jewish local government and the superior Roman government. Although “Mark” shows the best understanding and most detail about the trials, his writings make clear his motive: to persuade the reader that Jesus was innocent of any crime a person could be convicted of in a Jewish court.

But is it so? Deuteronomy 18:20 appears to prescribe a death penalty for “the prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak…” This crime of false prophesy may have been the statute prosecuted at the first Trial of Jesus, before the Sanhedrin – a group of political leaders acting as a court in Judea.

The Witness Corroboration Rule.

Mark tells us: “And the chief priests and all the council, sought for witnesses against Jesus to put him to death; and found none.”

“For many bore false witness against him but their witnesses agreed not together”

“We had heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days, I will build another made without hands.”

“But neither so did their witness agree together.”

Prosecutor asks “Why would they lie?”  Jesus Pleads the Fifth.

Mark continues:  “And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, saying, Answerest thou nothing?  What is it which these witness against thee?”

“But he held his peace, and answered nothing.”

Minnesota abandons the ancient Witness Corroboration Rule – a protection for the innocent.

Jewish law at the time required a conviction based upon a witnesses claims to be corroborated by other witnesses – to “agree together.”  Roman law did also, as did the laws of many other ancient civilizations.   This law continued throughout the ages, through English law which was inherited by us in the United States, as Common Law.  Many Common Laws were enacted into statute, including in Minnesota, including this one.  But in the late 20th Century Minnesota Statutes were amended to significantly water down and mostly destroy this ancient legal right, which had long served to protect innocents from false witnesses and false charges.

The Sanhedrin council deliberated then convicted him of the crime a false prophecy, had him bound and delivered to Pilate, the Roman Governor.   As a subject state, the government of Judea at the time did not have the legal authority to execute a death penalty sentence.  Previously, when they had that authority the Sanhedrin had four forms of it – stoning, hanging, burning, and decapitation – but not crucifixion.  Since they lacked the legal power to kill him, they brought Jesus to the Roman Governor Pilate to ask him to do so.  (By this time the death penalty had long been abandoned for Roman citizens.  It was only used against slaves and non-citizen foreigners.)

The Second Trial, to the Roman Governor.

Pilate had the legal authority to execute the Sanhedrin’s death sentence alone (to review the first trial), but chose to conduct another Trial, on a different criminal accusation,  instead.   Jesus was accused at this trial of a political (not religious, as before) crime – that of claiming to be The King of the Jews, a rebel against Roman authority.  The Romans already had a King of the Jews – theirs.  Any challenge to the authority of the Jewish government in Judea was effectively a challenge to Roman authority, since the Jewish King was subjugated to Rome.

As Mark tells us, 15:2:  “And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews?  And he answering, said unto him, Thou sayest it.”

“And the chief priests accused him of many things but he answered nothing.”

“And Pilate asked him again, saying, behold how many things they witness against thee.”

“But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled.”

 The Passover lenity tradition.

These events took place during the week-long Passover time.  Tradition held that the People should be granted the freedom of a condemned person.  A rebel named Bar-Abbas was proposed along with Jesus as a possible candidate for leniency.  Though Bar-Abbas, and not Jesus, was granted leniency by the Roman Governor, the motivation for this is disputed.  The writers of the Christian Gospels seem to want to absolve the Roman Governor and blame the crowd.  But Radin points out that the crowd was indoors, smaller, and included many of those who had convicted him previously, and that Bar-Abbas was popular locally.

Radin also points out that the early Christians were mostly Greek and Roman, not Jewish; and there could have been a motive to slant the story to appeal more to potential Roman converts.  And Christianity did become a religion largely of Rome, not the Middle East.  This part of the story has been characterized as another trial of sorts, like a sentencing trial.  Radin is convincingly skeptical of this idea.

Another misuse of this part of the story has been the efforts of some to make it seem conflict between Christians and Jews, based upon Faith.  But, in reality it was not.  There were few Christians then and many religious leaders with small followings.  It was instead a continuation of the politically motivated killing of a feared rebellion against Roman authority and its local puppet government.

A Parade of Humiliations.

The Roman Governor sentenced Jesus to crucifixion, which included “scourging” before.  But a parade of other humiliations preceded those.   Consistent with his conviction for the crime of claiming to be the King of the Jews, Roman soldiers (most of whom were not from Rome) clothed him in purple, like a king, and put a crown of thorns on his head, then hit him on the head.  They put him back in his old clothes.  They plucked his beard.  They scourged him.

The Roman death penalty of crucifixion caused death because of the scourging – a brutal whipping with objects on the whip strands clawing away skin, flesh and muscle down to the bone.  The scourging was done short of killing the person.  At one time, the scourged person was then bound to a tree, which was later replaced by a timber gallows or Roman cross.  Death was slow and painful and public.  Death was by suffocation.

Sometimes soldiers or passersby took pity on a person hanging on a Roman cross and would give them “vinegar” or a low quality wine with myrrh – to help dull the mind and relieve the pain, and perhaps hasten the death by suffocation.  (The person had to stand on their feet, as hanging by the arms would suffocate them.)  Jesus was made such an offer but refused.

The Romans put up a sign, as they commonly did to deter others, over the head of Jesus on the Roman cross saying, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.”  The crucifixions were done near a road in a public place, as examples of what kind of criminal behaviors people should avoid.  Jesus was crucified near other convicted criminals, as was commonly done along the roadway.  His accusers came to mock him there, challenging him to come down if he really were Messiah.

Radin discusses the Judas story with some skepticism, and provides a basis for that skepticism which you can find in his book.  One observation bears repeating here, however.  Judas was one of the twelve disciples at the Last Supper, of course.  He is said to have betrayed Jesus and become a snitch for the authorities, by identifying him at the time of his arrest (before the trials).  There are differing accounts of what happened with Judas after that.  But, as Radin points out, Judas did not testify against Jesus at either trial – at the religious crime trial, or at the political crime trial.  Criminal lawyers are familiar with this phenomenon, and the various reasons that can sometimes explain it.

Radin’s book is wonderful.  It examines not only the Christian Gospels versions of the trials, written a couple of hundred years after the fact, but also the limited contemporary commentators, about these events.  He explores the historic and political context, which helps us understand what really may have happened – apart from simply accepting the conflicting Gospels at face value.

As criminal lawyers,  we can appreciate the use of criminal laws and trials by the religious and political authorities to put down a threat to their power.  Along the way, we have a snitch who assists the arrest but won’t testify.

We have a highly intelligent accused, without a lawyer, who refuses to answer questions or accusations by witnesses, prosecutors or the authorities.

We have documentation of the ancient right to require witness corroboration of the details of an accusation.  And we have an ancient record of the rejection of the death penalty for civilized people, though not for the “other,” less civilized.

Yes, there is much more yet, to this great story which truly brings history to life.  There are also lessons here, for those interested, about criminals, criminal law and trials.

By: Thomas C Gallagher, a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, and a student of history and famous trials.

Minnesota Court Waters Down Legal Definition of Illegal Drugs: Toilet Water Now Criminal to Possess

Water Bong

Water Bong

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, has now ruled that Bong Water (water which had been used in a water pipe) was a “mixture” of “25 grams or more” supporting a criminal conviction for Controlled Substance crime in the first degree.  The crime is the most serious felony drug crime in Minnesota, with a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for a first offense.  The case is Minnesota v  Peck, A08-579, Minnesota Supreme Court, October 22, 2009.

The majority opinion takes an absurd literal view, arguing in essence that any amount of a substance dissolved in water makes that water a “mixture” containing that substance.  Perhaps.  But, since Minnesota’s criminal prohibition laws are organized to make greater quantities of drug possession a more serious crime than smaller quantities, such a simple-minded view defeats the purpose of the quantity-based severity levels.

If a person possessed one-tenth of a gram of methamphetamine, they could be charged with a Controlled Substance Fifth Degree crime, with a five-year maximum.  But – dissolve the one-tenth of a gram in 26 grams of water, on purpose or by accident, and now under this new decision from the Minnesota Supreme Court, that can be prosecuted as Controlled Substance First Degree – with a 30-year prison term.  Just add water for five times the sentence!  In the case of marijuana, a non-criminal amount under 42.5 grams smoked through a bong could give the police and government lawyers the legal right to charge a felony drug crime with possible prison time – not for the marijuana, but for the bong water. This defeats the legislative purpose of treating larger quantities of drugs more harshly.  Worse – it makes no sense.  It is irrational.  It leads to an absurd result.

What is a bong?  It is a water pipe.  A water pipe, such as a bong, can be used to smoke tobacco, marijuana, methamphetamine (as in the Peck case), or anything that can be smoked.  Smokers view the water which has been used to filter and cool the smoke as something disgusting, not unlike a used cigarette filter, to be discarded – sooner or later.  The used water is not commonly used for any other purpose.  Apparently a naive or misguided police officer testified otherwise in the Peck case, and – amazingly -the four in the majority of the court appears to have given that testimony credit.

In general, courts have made efforts to prevent police and government lawyers from having the ability to manipulate the facts or evidence in such a way as to either create criminal liability for targeted people, or, to increase the penalty the target might suffer.  Here is an instance to the contrary.

If the government wants to charge a more serious drug crime – what to do?  Just add water!  (Water is heavy – heavier than drugs.  Drug crimes are based on weight.  Water is not currently defined by law as an illegal drug.)

Frequent news reports remind us about the drugs in the rivers and most of our municipal water supplies (not concentrated enough to hurt us, we are reassured).  Type “in water supply” into your favorite internet search engine and you can read thousands of reports of scientific studies documenting this.

As a result, if you have water sourced from a river, like we do in Minneapolis, then you could now be charged with a Minnesota Controlled Substance First Degree Crime (toilets tanks hold way more than 25 grams of water with illegal drugs dissolved).  This can be a particularly troubling variation of the trace-drug criminal case, where only a trace of suspected illegal drugs is found.  Trace cases can be problematic, in part because there may not be enough of the suspected material to be tested twice for its chemical identity. 

The widespread scientific reports of cocaine contamination (in trace amounts) on most United States currency, would be another example of “trace evidence of illegal drugs possession.”  Under the Peck case, we can have a situation of a trace amount of illegal substance “mixed” with water, which is heavy.  Or – we could have a relatively small amount (by weight) of illegal contraband mixed with a large amount of (heavy) water.

Even if you believe some drugs possession should be a crime – should one gram mixed in water be treated the same as one kilogram (1,000 grams) in powder form?

What can be done about this particular absurd injustice?

  1. Ask the legislature to repeal the criminal prohibition laws.
  2. Remember this case at election time.  Vote!  You can vote for or against Minnesota Supreme Court candidates, including incumbents.
  3.  Jury Nullification, or the rule of jury lenity.  Jurors have legal rights to acquit, despite the facts, despite the judges instructions on the law.  Just do it!
  4. Remove all water sourced from rivers from your home and office, including toilets, in the meantime.

At least the dissenting opinion, by Justice Paul H. Anderson, joined by Justice Alan C. Page, and Justice Helen M. Meyer, exhibits common sense.  Here is what Justice Paul Anderson wrote in dissent of the majority opinion:

“The majority’s decision to permit bong water to be used to support a first-degree felony controlled-substance charge runs counter to the legislative structure of our drug laws, does not make common sense, and borders on the absurd…the result is a decision that has the potential to undermine public confidence in our criminal justice system.”

It’s a good read (link at the beginning of this article, above).  It is shocking that four in the majority could have disagreed with the dissenters.  Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of the 100 year experiment in using criminal blame as a strategy to solve a public health problem.

It’s time to change the laws.  This absurdity makes it all too clear. Written by Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Drug Lawyer