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Letting Marijuana Offenders Pay to Turn Felonies into Misdemeanors Is a Terrible Idea

It's a reform only the rich could love.

The courthouse in Mendocino County, California, where you can get a marijuana felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor if you can pay. Photo via Flickr user J. Stephen Conn

What if you could pay the cops a bunch of money and have a felony turned into a misdemeanor? Does that sound like a good idea? It does to David Eyster, the district attorney for Mendocino County, California, who, the Los Angeles Times reports, has instituted a system that allows certain marijuana offenders to give the cops some money—$50 per pot plant and $500 per pound of product—in order to avoid prison time and get straight probation. This “restitution” program is great for the rich, but not so great if you care about people being treated equally under the law.


Eyster took over as the Mendocino DA three years ago, when the county’s court system was drowning in pot cases. To reduce the clog, Eyster took a California health and safety statute meant to compensate the police for cleaning up toxic meth labs and used it to allow certain pot offenders—those who have clean records and didn’t grow on public lands—to pay for what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card. The police may also take the growers’ property in the name of asset forfeiture to sweeten the deal for police and prosecutors—and it’s a very sweet deal they have going. The cops took a whopping $4.4 million in cash and goods in 2013 in Mendocino, and restitution payments brought in $3.7 million since 2011.

Criminologists, defense attorneys, and a grand jury who recently subpoenaed documents related to the program seem to find Eyster’s scheme at least somewhat problematic. The LA Times quotes San Diego law professor Alex Kreit as saying Eyster has created something that “suggests a two-tiered system of justice where people who don't have the money for the restitution or don't have assets they can use as a bargaining chip may get more severe criminal punishments."

When law enforcement is focussed on bringing in money as they are in Mendocino, it naturally leads to questionable behavior. The LA Times piece details how Bob Alexander, a 57-year-old with a marijuana prescription, was pulled over in August 2013 by a Mendocino County cop. Alexander admitted he had some (medical, and legal) marijuana, and showed the officer his papers, but he also had $10,788 in cash he said he was using to buy his daughter a car. The man was then pressured by the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force into handing over the cash and saying it didn’t belong to him, though he was never charged with a crime. After eight months, Alexander managed to get his money back, but he shouldn’t have been squeezed into forfeiting his money in the first place.


Thanks to the practice of charging defendants court fees and other vague-sounding “assessments,” poor people are already at an enormous disadvantage when they get vacuumed up by the drug war–obsessed criminal justice system, and they’ll most likely be pressured into making guilty pleas even if they could beat the charges in court with the aid of a good lawyer. Eyster’s restitution system compounds those problems—rich growers can pay their way to freedom, while poorer ones will be heading to prison. There’s evidence that the war or weed is slowly ending, but that hasn’t stopped clever law enforcement officials like Eyster from trying to squeeze every red cent out of prohibition—his restitution process is the worst sort of “reform.”

Here are this week’s bad cops:

–In case you needed more evidence that adolescent mischief is being criminalized, eight students at Wilson Central High School in Lebanon, Tennessee, were charged with misdemeanor vandalism and disorderly conduct after starting a food fight in the school cafeteria on May 23. The weirdest aspect to the story in the Lebanon Democrat might be the somber, national-security-for-kidz tone of the proceedings: “[Sheriff Luke] Bryan said the two [School Resource Officers] assigned to the school received information something was going to happen Friday in the lunchroom.” That sure sounds more serious than “someone tattled to a teacher.”


–On May 21, a homeowner shot by a Hallandale Beach, Florida, SWAT team during an early-morning May 8 drug raid passed away in the hospital. Howard Bowe, 34, had a car-wash and a lawn-mowing business, and his family and friends say he was neither violent nor a drug dealer, but the cops had a warrant to break down his door, and after they did so they shot Bowe’s pit bull and then the man himself. Police denied anyone else was in the home, but Bowe’s family says that his 16-year-old son had been in the house and was beaten and interrogated by officers. The department put Michael McKenzie, the officer who shot Bowe, on administrative leave.

–On May 22, the New York Times released documents given to the paper by lawyers representing Occupy Wall Street participants that showed the sloppy, incompetent way the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other law enforcement agencies went about monitoring activists. Most of the surveillance was carried out by 78 Fusion Centers, fancily named, expensive DHS operations that recorded, among other things, when Occupiers went to yoga class and when they hosted a speech by famous lefty Noam Chomsky. A lot of the time, this “surveillance” involved trawling social media and setting up Google alerts. This is a fine time to not that back in 2012 a Senate subcommittee concluded that these centers had cost between $289 million and $1.4 billion since 2003 and produced intelligence “of uneven quality—oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, [and] sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.” Whoops. Everyone involved should be fired.


–The San Diego Police Department seems to have misplaced $1 million, which it was given by the Treasury Department as part of the federal government’s routine doling out of money taken in asset forfeiture or earned from the sale of seized assets. A million bucks is pennies to the federal government, but still, this reeks of incompetence, if not outright corruption. Everyone involved should be fired.

–Whoever is in charge of the Hamtramck, Michigan, Police Department’s Facebook page had a disturbing response to Mediaite editor-in-chief Andrew Kirell (a friend of mine) when Kirell asked why the force’s brand-new military vehicle was necessary. The department’s social media person wrote (and later deleted) that “statistics are worthless” and “society is far more violent than it has ever been, period!” That’s not true, according to the frickin’ FBI, and it’s disturbing that a police official would be parading his ignorance around in public. Everyone involved should be fired.

–A SWAT team in St. Joseph County, Indiana, just got a brand-new, Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicle free of charge thanks to the US military. According to the news blurb, the terrifying thing made its “debut” during Monday’s Memorial Day parade in the town of Mishawaka—that’s not a very subtle blurring of the line between solder and cop.

A Hempstead, New York, woman won a $675,000 settlement on Friday over a 2010 case in which she was shot by cops looking for her drug-dealer neighbor. Iyanna Davis was never charged with anything, and she says when the cops came into her building she hid in a closet, terrified that she was being robbed. The Nassau Police Department officer who shot her once through the breast, reportedly discharged his weapon by accident, and was cleared of any wrongdoing. He’s likely still on the force, but hopefully he’s learned to take his fucking finger off the trigger during a raid. And at least Davis has been paid for her pain and suffering.

A Bangor, Maine, police officer saved a mother duck and her eight ducklings on May 25 after getting call from a game warden about the stranded fowl sitting in a flower bed under a Texas Roadhouse sign near a Papa John’s. Officer David Farrar placed the mother duck in a kennel, with her kids following close behind, then put the whole family carefully into the nearest pond. Farrar is our Good Cop of the Week for improving the lives of nine ducks in his community (not to mention the PR image of his department).

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter.