Notorious Baltimore stickup man Omar Little from 'The Wire.' Photo via HBO
You're kicking back on your couch, watching TV, when a couple guys from around the way who know about your weed stash burst through the front door. Maybe they wave a gun or two around, but the most important thing is they make off with all your pot. Or you're walking down the street and get robbed at knifepoint for that molly in your pocket. Or you notice that a friend of a friend you've invited to a party at your place take off—only to realize he swiped the small bag of coke you left on the dresser.
So... what do you do now? Should you call the cops and report that someone stole your illegal drugs? Only a complete idiot would do that, right? But if you did, can the law help you in any way in the aforementioned scenarios? (For purposes of this discussion, we're talking strictly about illegal, controlled substances and not, for example, lawfully obtained prescription pills or authorized amounts of marijuana in states in which recreational or medical pot is legal.)
For answers, we turned to Greg Gifford. He's a prominent Philadelphia-area criminal defense attorney who, over his 32 years in practice, has dealt with these scenarios from all conceivable angles, having represented people who had their drugs stolen and those who did the stealing.
"If you're a dealer, you're screwed, but if you're a user..."
First off: Sorry, you're not getting your drugs back. "It's not happening," Gifford laughs. "If police investigate and end up locating your stolen drugs and seizing them, they're not giving them back to you." Same goes for any drug paraphernalia.
Theoretically, Gifford muses, you could attempt to recoup the financial value of your drugs by suing the thief in civil court, but your chances of victory are infinitesimal. "A victim could try to argue that, 'Hey, this guy stole my property and I paid $500 for it, and nobody can prove it was illegal property because it doesn't exist anymore and hey, maybe it was actually a fake narcotic...'" the attorney says. "But making that case would be extremely difficult. You'd have to have some kind of physical proof, and if all you've got is the guy's admission saying, 'Yeah, I stole your heroin, your cocaine, your pot,' most judges, I'd imagine, would just toss [the case]. I've yet to see someone try something like that, and I wouldn't recommend it."
Most dealers, Gifford adds, probably should just chalk up having their drugs stolen to the dangers of doing that kind of business—and count themselves lucky they weren't killed. "I'd tell any dealer to get out of the business while you still can," he says.
That doesn't mean you can't pursue the people behind a burglary, a home invasion, or robbery that deprives you of drugs—even if you expose yourself to potential criminal charges by bringing the cops into things.
"If you're a dealer, you're screwed, but if you're a user, everyone wants to work with you, so you should absolutely call the police, especially if you've been robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint," Gifford says. "You can get justice against the people who robbed you with perhaps some residual issues toward yourself in certain instances. But for the most part, a user will get in virtually no trouble."
If, say, you forgot about those baggies on your kitchen table when police respond to your report of a burglary—and Gifford says that kind of thing happens all the time—as long as you cooperate with the investigation and prosecution, it's nearly a lock that any charges filed against you will be dropped or substantially downgraded. That's especially true these days, with many states becoming less punitive and more treatment-oriented when it comes to drugs. (Whether that continues under the reign of President Trump remains to be seen, but issues involving small amounts of stolen drugs mostly concerns local and state law.)
The kicker, in some instances, is you may have to agree to testify in court against any defendants in your case—or agree to seek substance abuse treatment.
"Most of the people who rob drugs from others expect the victims will never do anything for fear of getting into trouble. But the police don't want that to be a chilling effect," says Gifford. "If they just hammer everybody who says they were robbed of drugs, then nobody's gonna go to the police, and they're not gonna catch these criminals and someone just might wind up dead the next time it happens."
Gifford says that in all of those cases, he's made sure to get a commitment from police that they would honor any such deals extended to his clients.
But what about the possibility that cops might go back on their word? "Well, that greatly concerns me," Gifford admits. "It's no secret that in the pursuit of criminal justice, police are allowed to lie in certain situations."
Still, the defense lawyer continues, "In most jurisdictions, if the district attorney or the police give their word to an attorney, they usually keep their word. For the public, a lot of times it's very important to know who your top law enforcement person is in your area and whether they believe in enforcing that someone's word is their bond. You can get [deals] in writing from the district attorney's office, but from the police themselves, you've just got to trust them, and in 32 years, I've never been burned."
As Gifford points out, word tends to hit the street quickly when cops renege on deals, making it less likely people will cooperate with them. That tends to work against cops' own interests as far as solving serious crimes and prosecuting cases.
But the bottom line is, when it comes to simple, nonviolent theft involving a relatively small amount of illegal drugs, there's really not much point in getting authorities involved. "The reality is if it's not a burglary or a robbery, where the police are trying to find people who are really dangerous and get them off the street, you're going to have a fairly difficult time going to the police and saying, 'Hey, my buddy was over the house and stole my weed,'" Gifford smiles. "I wouldn't expect much to come of that. Unfortunately, that's probably something you're just going to have to address directly with your buddy."
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