When 12 local medical marijuana providers were arrested in late December 2010, the then-head of the now-defunct SLO County Narcotics Task Force predicted that the “concrete proof” collected against them would lead to 12 full convictions.
But on Jan. 17, 2012-after more than a year of courtroom hearings and exhausting hours spent arguing over motions and jury instructions-the SLO County District Attorney’s Office admitted it couldn’t proceed with its cases against six of the nine remaining Doobie Dozen defendants.
As a result, Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera dismissed all charges against defendants Chris and Amy Austin, David and Valerie Hosking, Thomas Sandercock, and Steven Gordon. Charges filed against the various defendants ranged from possession of marijuana for sale to child endangerment.
As of press time, another defendant, Peter Miller, was scheduled to face a similar dismissal on Jan. 18.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen told New Times the prosecutors had previously made the decision to send the cases to state appellate court when it appeared the local court wasn’t receptive to its interpretation of state medical marijuana laws. The appeal to the state may provide clarity on the law, he said.
The prosecution and defense had squared off for months over a set of jury instructions that, in the final version, laid out state medical marijuana law in simple terms that were favorable for the defense.
Early on in the case, the District Attorney’s Office unsuccessfully attempted to prohibit the defendants from using the words “medical marijuana” and “collectives.” “It is the People’s position given the court’s ruling asserting that the collective defense should be [allowed], and that the court ruled that the jury would be given [the finalized instructions], that the People are unable to proceed to trial in these cases,” Van Rooyen told LaBarbera.
If an appeal is made, the District Attorney’s Office is required to appeal the court’s ruling to the Second District Court of Appeals within 10 days. Should the district court favor the appeal, the cases could go back to a local judge.
“What a waste,” said defendant Miller. “We could have been where we’re at today over six months ago.”
During the appeal process, which could take years to complete, law enforcement officials may hold onto the former defendants’ confiscated possessions, including cash, bank accounts, computers, and medicinal marijuana. Defense attorney Patrick Fisher told New Times he plans to file motions to return his clients’ possessions, but conceded it will be difficult.
“I expect another long process where we don’t have anything for a couple months,” Fisher said. “The marijuana probably won’t be returned [since the cases are technically ongoing], but the bank accounts, I can’t see a good reason why [prosecutors] need that. But the court will probably deny that.”
He estimated the attention given to his clients’ cases has helped to effectively end local law enforcement investigations of medical marijuana providers, but the long-term significance could come from the state if the case sets a legal precedent.
Following the dismissals, former defendants said the victory was bittersweet and added they would have liked to have gone to trial so they could get on with their lives.
“It’s like a game of chess where you have your opponent in check mate, and they’re like, ‘No you don’t,'” said former defendant David Hosking. “It’s like this is one big game to [the prosecutors].”