18 Months -- Marijuana Conspiracy
Medical Marijuana Patient
Wednesday, August 20, 2003 - The Daily Journal (CA)
Judge Bashes U.S. On Medi-Pot
Jurist Departs Downward in Sentencing Man to 18 Months
By Mark Cromer, Daily Journal Staff Writer
SANTA ANA -- A federal judge has sentenced an Anaheim Hills man to 18 months in prison for possessing marijuana, while at the same time lambasting the continuing federal assault on California's medical-pot law.
The ruling late Monday drew criticism from defense attorneys but dealt a blow to Attorney General John Ashcroft's efforts to get stiff prison terms for Californians who grow marijuana for medical reasons.
"This case embodies the perfect storm of controversy," U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter said before the sentencing. "It has basic and fundamental questions about federalism and states' rights."
Carter's sentence rejected mandatory sentencing guidelines that would have put 33-year-old Michael Teague behind bars for five years.
Noting that his ruling will trigger a review by Ashcroft's office, Carter said he wasn't worried about any heat from Washington, D.C.
"You're only intimidated if you let them intimidate you," he said.
The case of United States v. Teague
, SACR02-98 (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2002), has drawn national attention. Monday's sentencing hearing, which ran late into the night, saw a courtroom filled with drug policy experts, medical-marijuana proponents and law enforcement officials.
In sentencing Teague, Carter said that, had police not found a loaded Hechler & Koch 9mm handgun in the defendant's house, the sentence would have been "substantially different," strongly hinting Teague may have walked out of the courtroom.
Instead, as muffled sobs and shouts of "stay strong, Mike" came from family and friends, burly U.S. marshals cuffed Teague, removed his belt and led him into custody.
Teague was arrested by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms two weeks after Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declined to prosecute him. Rackauckas said Teague's case fell under the state's medical-marijuana law.
Teague is a pool cleaner who maintains he suffers from chronic back pain and had a written "recommendation" for marijuana from a physician.
Before the sentencing, Carter gave a long statement of his views on the history of the drug war, its effectiveness and its emerging role in the friction between federal sovereignty and states' rights.
In handing down the sentence, the judge rejected mandatory-sentencing guidelines and used a "safety valve" procedure to give Teague a reduced term.
The judge found that Teague fit the five-point criteria that allowed Carter to reduce the sentence. The criteria include the defendant having no prior criminal history, not using a firearm or violence in the commission of the offense, not causing death or injury during the offense, not being the leader of a criminal organization and truthfully cooperating with the government.
Carter said he hoped his ruling would set a precedent for judges who have to struggle with mandatory-sentencing guidelines in drug cases such as Teague's.
"I am going to downward depart and have it tested in the Supreme Court, if possible," Carter said.
He later told attorneys, "I am hoping that you and the government rush off to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals."
Both sides said they would.
"While I respect Judge Carter, he unfortunately failed to see the purity of this defendant as a result of the simple presence of the firearm, which he acknowledged was not used to offend," said defense attorney J. David Nick. "We will start work on the appeal tomorrow."
Nick ridiculed prosecutors - even loudly berating them in the hall after the trial - as "zealots" intent on laying waste to California's medical-marijuana laws.
Stopler declined comment.
"Their conduct has been despicable," Nick said.
He is a constitutional law and criminal defense specialist, with a practice in San Francisco.
"They want to send a message not only to distributors of medical marijuana but also to the patients using it," Nick said. "They want to give this guy five years. They have turned into partisans in a political war."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Stolper didn't pull any punches as he hammered away in court on Monday night at the defense's contention that Teague was justifiably using marijuana under a doctor's orders to treat chronic back pain.
Using a computer-generated presentation, Stolper said Teague had a loaded gun within easy access inside the house, scales for weighing dope, and 108 pot plants in an intricate "grow room."
Stolper said Teague had told investigators he accepted "donations" from friends to whom he gave weed.
The donations were generally $200 per ounce, according to a supplemental trial stipulation.
Stolper had offered Teague a deal earlier in the case that would have given him five months in community custody and five months under house arrest. He said Monday that the law required a five-year sentence and that the government also was likely to appeal Carter's ruling.
"The argument that Nick makes is his client was a medical-marijuana user," Stolper said. "He is a grower, he is a user and he is a small-time dealer with no demonstrated medical condition."
Though Carter clearly relished the opportunity to weigh in on the escalating conflict between voter-approved initiatives and federal drug policy, he also said he was aware of the human cost in the drama unfolding Monday night.
Noting that members of Teague's family, including his mother, worked in law enforcement, Carter said he found their testimony to be credible and accurate.
Teague's mother had taken the stand to detail her son's gun use, which she said was primarily for sport shooting. She also testified that she is the one who put the gun in Teague's jacket in his house.
Teague had maintained he had forgotten about the gun and didn't know it was there until agents discovered it when they served a search warrant on his home.
Carter took strong swipes at both sides as he rendered his sentence.
Looking at Teague, who sat somewhat hunched over the defense table with his hands clasped in front of him, Carter told him dryly, "You are a grower. You have a scale. You have a gun in the closet. You got 'donations,' and you think I am dumb."
But the prosecutors had oversold their case, said Carter, who chided the federal attorneys for failing to prove that Teague was in fact a dealer of any consequence.
"The government has backtracked from its position that he was a major dealer," Carter said. "Turns out he's a minnow."
The judge also criticized the prosecution for not delivering on information apparently obtained from an informant in the case.
"I have been deprived of knowing whether he went to the door as a stranger and bought, which makes it look like he's a dealer, or whether he showed up as a friend, which would indicate he's not," Carter said. "Is the informant paid? Is he working off a beef?"
Proponents of medical marijuana likened Teague's case to that of Ed Rosenthal, a medical-marijuana grower whom a federal judge in San Francisco sentenced to a symbolic one-day term earlier this year. The sentence came over the prosecution's efforts to secure a long prison time.
Carter, however, said that, while the judge in the Rosenthal case made a "wise decision," possession of a gun made Teague's case different.
Carter saw a similarity between himself and the judge in the Rosenthal case.
"I am also convinced you are caught in a major power struggle between the federal government and the states," he said.
Mike Gray, chairman of the group Common Sense for Drug Policy
, who was monitoring the outcome of Teague's case, said that, if Ashcroft prevails with a prison sentence for Teague, it likely will fuel more federal prosecutions of medical-marijuana users.
"The impact will be profound," Gray said. "I am not hopeful. This whole issue is not about justice or scientific fact. It's about political theater."
"The Bush administration is intent on teaching the voters in California a lesson, that he's in charge and we are not. If they succeed, it is going to be 1954 all over again."
Stolper saw it a little differently.
"The only thing that makes this case a medical-marijuana case is the opinion of the defense attorney," he said, "not the facts."
From Anita, Michael's mom:
I would like to take a moment to tell you the human interest side of my son, Michael Teague and his family. I work for a large police dept, his father is a supervisor for a county facility, his brother is a police officer, he has a sister who teaches 2nd grade, a sister who is an accountant and grandparents who volunteer their time working for county police.
He did not take the plea bargain because he knew he was not guilty and we wanted to take the American right to fight it. He has been punished for this. He said to me on the phone the other day "Mom, if I've learned anything it's you can't fight the government; they are too big and just take the deal or they will screw with you big time". We are from a law enforcement family and we believed in 'truth and justice.
The reason Michael took the stipulated trial was because we had the understanding from the judge and the prosecutor that they also understood Michael would go forward with the appeal process and not press the issue. I want to express more to you about our situation. We have lived our lives conscientiously and tried to abide by the laws of this country. Michael worked for his dad servicing pools through high school and as an adult bought the business from us. I raised my four children the best way I could and am very proud of them.
I knew of Michael's medical condition, having lived through his life-threatening accidents and seeing him in great physical pain. I love and support my son and have seen how medical marijuana treatments have relieved his pain and allowed him to live a normal life. In his choice of marijuana as medicine, we felt he was following the laws of California, not knowing of the conflict between state and federal laws.
In February I was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and have been undergoing chemotherapy. The chemicals they put into me cause me to have good days and bad days, and when they are bad they are really bad. I have come to terms with the fact that I have cancer and I appreciate how much worse it could be. When I sit and get my chemo I talk with other patients and realize what they are going through. I am grateful that the tumor seems to be shrinking and the therapy is doing something. I was in extremely good health before this, which is a good thing. It's just that sometimes things seem to be more effort than they are worth. I get overwhelmed.
Because of this experience, I have come to understand why the medical marijuana issue is so important. When the nausea is so bad just rolling to your side is agony, you want anything that will help. The need for making medical marijuana available for relief of the nausea or the bone pain I am now experiencing has been brought home to me even more.
I feel responsible for the poor choice of giving the gun back to Michael. It was only at my house a few weeks, despite what the prosecutor stated. Having lived most of my life with guns around working for the police department, a gun in our house is an accepted reality. In my line of work at the police station, none of my colleagues are without guns in their homes, and it never occurred to me I was doing Michael a disservice. Had we known the legal risk he faced as a medical marijuana patient by having one, I never would have given it back to him. He now faces losing his business, his house and everything he has accomplished in his life.
The main thing I wanted to express was how my feelings regarding medical marijuana and my own personal medical experiences have caused me to take a good hard look at the reason for laws allowing the use of it to alleviate certain conditions.
The prosecutor not only twisted the few facts he could come up with, he out-and-out lied. I held the courts and their representatives at a higher regard. Not one person testified the gun was loaded, or that it was in the same state as when I left it there. Michael also had gone to get his Doctor approval letter years ago, 1998 I think, not just in 2000 as Stopler stated. He keep saying that 'common sense' must show that he was right. That is not a reason, facts are a reason. I was in such shock at his gall that I can't, at this time, remember all he had said. But I don't remember him using actual facts.
A gun in the house, as a majority of people have, doesn't make him deserve an 18 month sentence. We are awaiting processing of Michael now but it looks like the system isn't set up to handle a case such as his. He will probably have to serve most of his 18 month sentence and we are hoping and praying for some type of medical help for him. He is in great pain and can be given no relief. No one is taking responsibility. He is in a county facility until he's processed, which could take 6-8 weeks. At that time we will know more. He will be lost in the system. Where is the justice? I don't think even the Judge understands what has been done. He seemed like a caring man.
The disrespect we received from the federal prosecutor was degrading. Even though Michael was a defendant that does not excuse Stopler from his treatment of our family.
Thank you, Anita Teague