Friday

Dispatches from the Field: Bend Over and Assume the Position


In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.
~Lenny Bruce
Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Joe Byron opened the doors of Egg Heaven at seven o'clock that morning, breakfast was on him. For most diners, a free breakfast at this friendly spot on the corner of East 4th Street and Ximeno Avenue in Long Beach would be a happy occasion, but the folks sliding into booths on this chilly morning bore the obvious signs of strain. It was a familiar drill for most of them. After breakfast they’d be heading to court to stand once again with Joe, a medical marijuana defendant, and his friend and former business partner, Joe Grumbine, in their ongoing legal nightmare.

This morning’s Pretrial Conference would be just one more step on the tortuous road the Joes had been traveling for a year and a half. The torment started in December of 2009, when the Long Beach Police Department unleashed one-hundred-and-twenty armed police officers with dogs, helicopters and a fleet of vehicles in a raid on seventeen locations across three Southern California counties – Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles. Three of those locations were legally sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries co-owned by the two Joes – one in Garden Grove in Orange County, and two in Long Beach in Los Angeles County. Another was the collective grow room in Long Beach. The remaining incursions took place at the homes and businesses of everyone connected with the collective – owners, volunteers and employees.

They even busted Egg Heaven.

There were about nine people having breakfast at the restaurant when police barged in. They escorted the customers outside, then sat the waitress and two kitchen staff in separate booths while they searched the place, even collaring a friend of owner Joe Byron’s who was there to look at the cash register and offer advice on point-of-sale computer systems.

Byron, meanwhile, had just arrived at the “grow” on Long Beach Boulevard when he heard pounding on the door, saw it was the police, and offered to open it.

“I have a key,” he told them. But they had a battering ram.

Busting down the door, they shouted, “Get on the ground!” In seconds Byron was face down and handcuffed. “They went through my pockets and took everything I had, including some money and my wedding ring. Then they took me to my house, read me my rights, and took me to jail.”

At the same time, the dispensary Byron and Grumbine co-owned in Garden Grove, Unit D, was being set upon by another gung-ho SWAT team. While Joe Grumbine was handcuffed in one room, two female employees were handcuffed in another. The police broke down doors, tore things off walls, and confiscated everything – medicine, cash, and all their business records. After scrawling Merry Xmas on the wall, they arrested Joe and both employees and hauled them off to jail.

“You don’t think about what it’s like to assume the position and be violated,” Grumbine later told a gathering of supporters in Pasadena. It took some prompting by meeting organizer Lisa Chick to get Joe to admit that he was talking about body-cavity searches.

“Repeated, multiple body-cavity searches. Especially the women.”

The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure, to live it you have to explode
In the last hour of need, we entirely agreed,
 sacrifice was the code of the road.

~Bob Dylan, Journey Through Dark Heat

In April of 2010 – with bail for Byron set at $463,835 and Grumbine at $260,000, and with each man facing up to seven years in prison – Grumbine and Byron got a call from the Long Beach Police saying they could come to the station and collect some of their confiscated property. The property turned out to be file cabinets from Byron’s real estate office. Then, in November of 2010, before charges were filed, they were called into the office of L. A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, where they were advised of the charges that were going be filed against them.

Triggered by a complaint from a “confidential informant,” the arrest warrant against Byron and Grumbine, issued by Judge Judith L. Meyer of Los Angeles County Superior Court, charged Byron with eighteen felonies, and Grumbine with fifteen, “committed on or about November 12, 2009.” The crimes? Twelve counts each of  “11360 (A) Health and Safety Code” violations, which make the sale of marijuana a felony “except as otherwise provided by law.” California law does in fact provide otherwise, making the sale of medical marijuana legal, but some jurisdictions choose to ignore it. And once defendants have been charged with a felony, however wrongfully, they are in the system, generating money for America’s vast prison industrial complex.

The People of the State of California vs. Joseph James Byron

Cooley’s office offered the Joes a deal: two felonies and no jail time. They turned it down.

On Tuesday, December 7, 2010, the case was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in Long Beach. The following day, at a Bench Warrant Hearing, Grumbine and Byron heard the charges against them. They pled not guilty to all counts and Judge Arthur Jean, Jr., reduced Byron's bail to $300,000 and Grumbine’s to $200,000. Unable to come up with ten percent of that in cash, Grumbine was “remanded to custody,” which is to say, led from the courtroom in handcuffs and chains.

Three days later, on Friday, December 10, 2010, there was a Bail Review Hearing with Judge Judith L. Meyer, who had signed the original arrest warrant. Given such a long list of felony charges, Judge Meyer denied Byron’s plea for bail reduction, leaving it at $300,000, and reduced Grumbine’s to $120,000. Byron’s parents came up with $30,000 to keep their son out of jail, but Grumbine’s friends and family fell short of the $12,000 they needed to buy his freedom. Again he was “remanded to custody,” disappearing behind a metal door in handcuffs and chains.

A few days later, a handful of angels – literally people Joe had just met – put their nest eggs on the line to make his bail. As soon as they got the word, Liz Grumbine, daughter Candace, and a few friends piled into a van for an anxious ride to Los Angeles. At about 1:00 a.m., having waited long enough to charge the taxpayers for one more prisoner day, the jailers let Joe out.

It’s not the money, it’s the money.
Bill Graham, Rock Concert Producer

They Thought We Were Some Kind of Cartel

On June 15, 2011, the Drug Policy Alliance reported that the war on drugs has cost the American public more than one trillion dollars. The price tag for 2009, the year of the raids that ruined Joe Grumbine and Joe Byron, was fifty-one billion dollars. Students for a Sensible Drug Policy reported that over ten billion dollars a year is spent just enforcing marijuana laws. And that says nothing of the cost to those who are forced to defend themselves.

Although Byron has been picking up the tab for the ad hoc breakfast club for many months, it’s nothing compared to what the arrest and prosecution have cost him. “They’ve financially devastated me,” he said. “The hardest thing was having to ask my parents to help out with bail. It’s been a huge strain on my family and everyone involved.”

The police took all the money everyone had on them or in their homes, including one person’s emergency thousand-dollar cash fund. “They emptied the cash register at Egg Heaven,” said Byron. “They counted it as drug money! They thought we were some kind of cartel, or drug ring, but all they got from all seventeen locations combined was $36,000.” Not exactly cartel money.

“I just finished filing Chapter 7 with my bank,” said Grumbine, acknowledging some of what the ordeal has cost him. In the early days of the case, supporters would gather for breakfast at the Grumbines’ place in Perris – Willow Creek Springs – where Joe and Liz had coaxed a nursery and botanical garden out of the barren hills around them. Grumbine has barely kept the nursery alive and is unable to earn a living as he focuses on holding fundraisers and selling ribbons to raise money for legal fees and court support.

Grumbine and friends around a campfire at Willow Creek Springs.
Note the green Solidarity Ribbon.

“My life has flipped upside down. [Before the raids] the nursery was doing well. The collective was paying my bills. Everything’s changed. I haven’t lost my house yet, but it’s on the edge.”

Beyond the financial toll, he’s also lost friends and family. “Except for a couple of people. My dad stood by me. And his wife. My uncle bailed me out. I haven’t paid him back yet, but he stepped up.” He understands that people are scared, that he’s “tainted” by a dark cloud that follows him everywhere.

It’s precisely because of the sacrifices others make to support him, and because it’s who he is, that Grumbine shows up in court for every other medical marijuana defendant he can. And a green ribbon crew is right there with him, even when they’re down to just one or two people.

Wheels of Mercy

As early arrivals passed around menus, more court supporters descended on Egg Heaven, some of them having gotten up at 4:30 in order to make it. They came from all over Southern California to reconnoiter at breakfast, then carpool over to the courthouse – each wearing a green ribbon with a small red cross in the center, their statement of support for medical marijuana patients and defendants in court.

In Los Angeles that morning, Stephanie Landa was waiting on the corner in the dark when her ride pulled up. A champion of court support, Landa has waged an ongoing battle to keep more “political prisoners” from entering the system. Over omelets and coffee, she posted pictures to Facebook, enticing anyone within driving range of the Long Beach courthouse.

Free breakfast at Egg Heaven! Help make history! Court support is making a difference!

After serving forty-one months in prison for cultivating medical marijuana in compliance with California law, Landa co-founded LPOP, the Landa Prison Outreach Program. Her ongoing mission: to make sure other medical marijuana POWs, who were operating within existing laws but still wound up in prison, receive cards, letters, postage, and books during their incarceration. She publishes a newsletter, LPOP – Prison Outreach Press to raise awareness about the forgotten people who are serving decades-long prison terms for providing a legally sanctioned plant as medicine in compliance with the law.

Charles Monson of Orange, California, a quadriplegic due to a diving accident in 1979, was a qualified medical marijuana patient. On October 20, 2007, a dozen or more cops in bulletproof vests, humping assault rifles, came pounding on his door at 7 a.m. They handcuffed Monson’s caregiver and ordered Monson out of bed. After Monson convinced them he actually couldn’t get out of bed, they un-cuffed his caregiver.

“They came down on me like I was some drug kingpin,” he told Eugene W. Fields of The Orange County Register. In the end, all they got was sixteen plants and approximately two-and-a-half ounces of medical marijuana.

No longer able to grow the one medicine that could ease his pain, allow him to sleep, and calm his violent muscle spasms without side effects, and unable to buy it on his fixed income, Monson forged an alliance with the good people at Unit D. He also joined The Human Solution, the non-profit organization founded in 2009 by Grumbine and other medical marijuana advocates to build public awareness of the health benefits of the cannabis plant and advocate for the rights of medical marijuana patients and defendants.

On the nights before Grumbine and Byron were due in court, Monson would sometimes sleep in his wheelchair, as it took too long to get into it in the morning. When he wasn’t doing court support, he was wrangling and repairing wheelchairs for anyone who needed them, through his own non-profit organization, Wheels of Mercy.

“It’s a hardship to be a witness,” acknowledges Grumbine, recounting the things Monson and others, like long-time civil rights activist Madeleine Johnson, have gone through to show up in court time after time.

“I was having to choose between food and gas,” said Johnson. When Long Beach dispensaries heard about her situation, some of them offered to sponsor her. “I didn’t have to ask,” she said. “They make sure I have gas money to go fight for the patients.”

On Tuesday, June 7, 2011, Johnson took the fight to the Long Beach City Council. “You are cutting schools. Teachers are being laid off. Kids are losing education. But you can harass the collectives that give us our medicine? It’s not right, it’s not fair, and we’re tired of it.”

Long Beach Superior Courthouse, Thursday, June 9, 2011, 8:30 AM

“We’ve got a lot of people today,” observed Judge Sheldon as he entered his courtroom. Los Angeles attorneys Allison Margolin and J. Raza Lawrence were representing Joe Byron. Jina Kim of  Glew & Kim in Santa Ana was defending Joe Grumbine. Taking over the case for “the People” was District Attorney Jodi B. Castano.

In February of 2011, during a four-day closed-door preliminary hearing before Judge Jesse Rodriguez, the attorneys for Byron and Grumbine were prohibited from introducing evidence showing that their clients’ medical-marijuana dispensary activities were operating in full compliance with state law. The bulk of the legal wrangling so far has been over this point.

By interpreting the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 to mean that no money whatsoever may change hands for medical marijuana, L. A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who makes no secret of his personal war on medical marijuana, justifies the arrests of law-abiding dispensary owners by charging them with “sales.” Yet Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco, who co-authored the Compassionate Use Act, told Greggory Moore of The Long Beach Post on June 14 that the intent of the legislation “was not to prohibit dispensaries from engaging in sales of this medicine. In fact, it was to clarify the allowance of it.” [Italics ours.]

And therein lies the rub. The defendants have not been allowed to explain to a judge (never mind a jury) that they were selling medical marijuana to qualified patients with valid identification and legitimate doctors’ recommendations. California Penal Code Section 866 guarantees a defendant the right to what is called an “affirmative defense.” Having been denied that right, attorneys for Grumbine and Byron filed a Penal Code Section 995 motion to have their case dismissed.

At a Pretrial Conference on May 5, 2011, Judge Charles D. Sheldon denied that motion, upholding Judge Rodriguez’s finding that there was enough evidence to take the case to trial. The defendants were ordered to appear for another Pretrial Conference on June 9th. And so they did. It would mark their fifteenth appearance since this whole thing began – fifteen occasions over twenty months in which attorneys and courtroom personnel carried on doing the things that allow them to make a living, while Byron and Grumbine lost so much of what they had.            

Judge Sheldon, having received a lengthy discovery report, suggested they start out by setting a date to continue in order to give everyone enough time to go over the material. Ms. Castano said she had also received the material, including flash drives and “lots of audio.” “The people don’t want to pay to transcribe the audio if there is no trial,” she told the judge.

No trial? Court supporters glanced at each other, wondering if they’d heard right. A date for the discussion of discovery issues was set for 8:30 a.m., July 8, 2011.

There had been a motion from the defense asking to see the warrant that triggered the raids. The prosecutor acquiesced; they would finally be allowed to see the piece of paper that turned their lives upside down. Chalk one up for the Defense.

Judge Sheldon then asked about the writ filed by attorney J. Raza Lawrence on May 23, 2011, seeking to overturn the results of the preliminary hearing. They were still awaiting the outcome from the California Court of Appeal.

“We have a June 17 trial date,” said the Judge. “We need to know what happens with the writ.” Again, the prosecutor said, “We don’t know whether there’s a trial.” She reiterated that she didn’t want the People to pay for transcription of the audio tapes if there would be no trial, preferring to stretch out the pre-trial so the outcome of the various motions could be absorbed.

The judge, defense and prosecution agreed to stretch out the timeline with a series of three pre-trial conferences while they waited to see how the current motions played out. The new trial date was set for August 22, 2011. And then it was over.

Everyone looked to Joe Grumbine. It was a small victory in a long line of defeats, but there was no time to celebrate.

First, it was by no means over. Second, there was another landmark medical marijuana trial going on at the same time in Westminster, a twenty-minute drive south. Grumbine had already dispatched half his court support team straight from breakfast. The Long Beach contingent would double their number. Another defendant in need of Court Support: Catrina Falbo of Huntington Beach. Now it was her case that could set precedent, since Judge Sheldon had postponed a decision on the Long Beach case. Unlike Grumbine and Byron, Falbo was able to present an affirmative defense. Once again, a judge was in the unusual position of deciding a case with minimal case law and a room full of witnesses. [See Update at bottom.]

The Truth May Set You Free

The following evening, author Cheri Sicard hosted an impromptu barbecue for Grumbine and crew. Naturally, the main topic of conversation was their case. One of the hardest things to understand, even for the lawyers, was why these two regular Joes had been singled out for prosecution when business licenses were being handed out to some twenty other dispensaries in the same area. In fact, another dispensary was currently operating at their former Garden Grove location, using the very same wiring and lighting equipment they’d installed a few months before the raids, without any repercussions.

It all came down to the so-called “confidential informant” whose name had appeared on the warrant. “I know the guy,” said Joe. “He worked for us. Rick Anderson. I had to fire him. He called the police after I fired him and said he could only give his first name because he feared for his safety. He pretended to be a whistleblower.” According to the story, Anderson told the police that he had rigged the wiring downstairs to steal power from a neighbor at the request of the Unit D folks. It was a lie. He never did any wiring. Not only did he lie to the police, but later, he lied on the witness stand.

Joe recounted that before firing Anderson, he’d given him a verbal warning about drinking on the job, and then a written one that Anderson had signed without dispute. That document, along with all their other records, was seized in the raids. If they win their appeal overturning the “prelim,” they will start the process over, only this time they’ll have the evidence that Anderson launched this whole nightmare with a false complaint.

Byron and Grumbine's next court appearance: 8:30 a.m., Friday, July 8, 2011

**Update: On Friday, June 24, 2011, Catrina Falbo’s medical marijuana case, in which an “affirmative defense” was allowed, was dismissed by Judge Robert Gallivan “in the interest of Justice.”

 Sometimes Lenny Bruce is wrong.


7 comments:

  1. Great article Cynthia. It's a long complicated story, thanks for doing it justice.

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  2. I thought the article is well written and it well deserves to be read. It is a harrowing story that should frighten all of us for we don't know when our own front door will be crashed. We are being abused by our law enforcement and justice system. Miranda

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  3. Excellent article.

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  4. Thanks for reporting this disgusting abuse of Police power. Marijuana use needs to be discussed clearly by govt. and citizens.
    On the other hand,I believe marijuana smokers ignore health risks, especially mental health issues.
    Information on all sides should be openly debated to stop corruption, crime and dangers of drug use.
    Police must be held to high standards because abuse of their power destroys the basis of our civilisation.
    Thanks for helping to inform the public about this issue.

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  5. I WILL be sharing this in any public forum I can. Can you let the 2 Joes know that they have the support of me(a 40 something, middle class, mother of 4 from a little town in Southern Maryland)and many others in this country? Tell them that we are behind them and understand how unfair this all is. If I could be in California on 9/26 I would be! We will be there is spirit!

    Candace Junkin
    Leader of Moms for Marijuana - Maryland Chapter

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. Thank you, Candace. I will make sure the Joes see your comment and know of your support. I'm just learning how to manage comments so please forgive me for the long delay in responding. Most of all, thank you for your support for marijuana law reform. I'll keep you posted. Sincerely,
    Cynthia

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