Post-502: Washington Prosecutors Dismiss 220 Marijuana Cases


Graham Lawyer Blog

Prosecutors in Washington’s two most populous counties are dismissing more than 220 misdemeanor marijuana cases after state voters on Tuesday decriminalized small amounts of cannabis.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg is dismissing 175 cases, and Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said he was dismissing “about four dozen” such misdemeanor cases where marijuana is the only offense, reports Jonathan Martin at The Seattle Times.

The prosecutors decided to apply I-502 — which removes criminal penalties for up to an ounce of marijuana — retroactively. I-502 comes into effect on December 6, one month after voters approved it in Tuesday’s general election.

“Although the effective date of I-502 is not until December 6, there is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month,” Satterberg said. The dismissed cases involved pot arrests in unincorporated areas of King County, as well as state highways on the University of Washington.

The Seattle Times
Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, King County: “[T]here is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month”

About 40 of the cases had already been filed in court as criminal charges. Those charges will be dismissed. Another 135 cases were waiting for charging decisions and will be returned to the arrest police agency.
Pierce County Prosecutor Lindquist said he was throwing out “about four dozen” pending cases where misdemeanor marijuana possession is the only offense. “The people have spoken through this initiative,” Lindquist said. “And as a practical matter, I don’t think you could sell a simple marijuana case to a jury after this initiative passed.”
He said he and his staff would continue to prosecute other cases where marijuana possession is secondary to a “more serious” charge — such as DUI.
Ever-so-conveniently, I-502 added a brand new DUI charge to the books in Washington: 5 ng/ml of active THC in the blood is now considered per se proof of impairment, whereas before 502’s passage, those accused of driving under the influence of pot could take their case to court, where law enforcement had to prove they were actually impaired in order to get a conviction.
Steinberg said King County would continue to prosecute marijuana possession in cases involving more than an ounce, allowing for “a buffer for those whose scales are less than accurate.” His office (following Washington state law as it will remain after 502 comes into effect) charges people with more than 40 grams with a felony, although they routinely allow defendants to plea down to a misdemeanor.
“I think when the people voted to change the policy, they weren’t focused on what the effective date of the new policy would be,” Satterberg said. “They spoke loudly and clearly that we should not treat small amounts of marijuana as an offense.”

Graham Lawyer Blog

Satterberg and Lindquist are the first prosecutors to announce changing policy after I-502, but others are also considering a similar course. 
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes has refused to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases since he took office in 2010. In 2003, Seattle voters approved a Lowest Enforcement Priority initiative instructing the police to place marijuana at the bottom of the list of crimes to pursue.
Satterberg said he expected the federal government to block implementation of I-502’s state licensing scheme for marijuana retailers and growers. “I think it’s the kind of issue the U.S. Supreme Court will have a final word on,” he said, calling it “an important state’s rights issue.”
Prosecutors over on the less progressive eastern end of Washington weren’t so accommodating.
Earlier this week, Spokane County’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, Jack Driscoll, took a far more conservative position, claiming that even after December 6, the only marijuana which would be legal to possess was pot sold in the state-licensed stores provided for in I-502. Since those stores won’t be open for at least another year, that means, according to Driscoll’s backwards-ass redneck reading of the law, there won’t be any legal marijuana in Washington until December 2013.
“The only thing that is legal is selling marijuana through those stores,” Driscoll claimed. “That will be regulated by the state. You can’t under this initiative have an ounce of marijuana that doesn’t come from a state-issued provider. You still can’t have black-market marijuana.”
Driscoll’s remarks no doubt elicited pained, I-told-you-so grimaces from the legions of anti-502 activists who predicted the “legalization” initiative would be interpreted in exactly that restrictive a manner by notoriously anti-pot law enforcement officers.