Tuesday

Dispatches from the Field: Cops Break Law on Taxpayer Dime

Just as every cop is a criminal,
and all the sinners saints.
As heads is tails, just call me Lucifer,
‘cause I’m in need of some restraint.
~ The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

“We lie to them,” testified Lead Detective Oscar Valenzuela. “We lie through our teeth." For once, he spoke the truth.
Lead Detective Oscar Valenzuela was on the stand as the People’s first “expert” witness in the trial of former medical marijuana dispensary owners Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine. It was Thursday, December 1, 2011 – Day Four of a massively expensive and pointless criminal trial in Long Beach, California. Detective Oscar Valenzuela was a main player in this jaw-dropping drama.

Not for the first time, lanky, blonde, hyper-vigilant bailiff Matt O’Donnell whirled around in his khaki sheriff’s uniform with its tasteful black leather holster belt and threatened the whole audience with expulsion if even one of them gasped again. Quite a tall order, given this sudden blast of naked truth from the man who masterminded the investigation of Byron and Grumbine – an investigation based on lies. Lies by the People and for the People.

Make no mistake. By “the People,” I sure as hell don’t mean you and me, my fellow citizen. I mean the Prosecution. And by “the Prosecution,” I don’t just mean the prosecuting attorney. I mean a vast cabal of law-scoffing law enforcement officials, up and down the chain of command, so ingrained into our culture that when you even begin to see the whole thing – when you even begin to see a pimple on the ass of the whole thing – it’s like a million pound shithammer to the cerebral cortex.


Voter Nullification
There’s no such thing as paranoia.
It’s worse than you think.
~ Outlaw biker to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Our vote doesn’t count any more. It’s that simple. To me, the vote is the sine-qua-non of a Democracy. Translated from the Latin by my dear, departed Dad, that means “without which, there ain’t no.”

If our vote doesn’t count, we don’t have a Democracy. Voter nullification is another way of saying, “coup.” Given America’s newly established (or at least newly acknowledged) corporate personhood, perhaps “hostile takeover” is a more accurate term. No matter. My point is that in a Democracy, the voters should have the last word.

Take election day, November, 1996. That was the day California voters decided to allow qualified patients safe access to medical marijuana by passing Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act. That was over fifteen years ago. The whole point was to protect patients and providers from the Oscar Valenzuelas of the world.

Which didn’t sit too well with the Oscar Valenzuelas of the world. But let’s not give an over-zealous gumshoe all the credit. Valenzuela’s overlord, the portly son of an FBI agent, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley is even more rabidly anti-medical marijuana than his Long Beach gunsel. And the same goes for his boss and his boss’s boss. Ever since the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 was enacted into law, law enforcement has been working overtime trying to drown it in the bathtub.


Operation Eradication – Your Tax Dollars at Waste

In 2003, California Senate Bill 420 was enacted into law, allowing patients to cultivate marijuana collectively and cooperatively. Collectives formed and dispensaries opened all across the state. At the same time, police geared up to wipe them out.

The authors of SB 420 intended to make access to medical marijuana easier and safer for patients and providers, not to give police a hammer to hit them over the head with. But that very year, the California Police Chiefs Association created a Task Force on Marijuana Dispensaries, made up of “representatives of numerous law enforcement agencies and allies who share the goal of bringing to light the criminal nexus and attendant societal problems posed by marijuana dispensaries that until now have been too often hidden in the shadows.” [My italics.] The following paragraph is included as a reminder that each individual involved was collecting a government salary, paid by the same good people who voted to legalize medical marijuana.

More than 30 people contributed to this project as members of CPCA’s Medical Marijuana Dispensary Crime/Impact Issues Task Force, which has been enjoying the hospitality of Sheriff John McGinnis at regular meetings held at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s Headquarters Office over the past three years about every three months.

The hospitality and headquarters office space were obviously paid for by taxpayer dollars. No doubt we also covered meal and travel expenses for thirty people traveling to Sacramento from all over the state every ninety days for three years. So what did we get for our money?

We got a “White Paper” cranked out by California’s finest. We got city council members happily swallowing everything the top cops fed them about the “criminal nexus and attendant societal problems posed by marijuana dispensaries” in their communities; problems that were so hidden in the shadows that they may not have even noticed until the cream of local authority – the police chiefs – took it upon themselves to lobby them. We got county governments sheepishly falling in line with what the cops told them to do. We got dispensary bans in cities and counties all across the state, based on “model bills” written by our very own trusted public servants – at our expense.

Just as the rabidly right-wing, back-room dealing, corporate-funded ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) writes “model bills” for their member legislators to introduce at the state level – for the benefit of America’s corporate bottom line, including our loathsome prison industrial complex – California’s police chiefs are doing the same thing at the local level; spreading fear and lies, trashing the will of the people, destroying jobs and lives, and shoveling citizens they’re supposed to protect and serve into the gaping maw of a for-profit prison system that has no place in a democracy. That’s what we got for our money.

But wait. There’s more. We also got horrific, multi-agency raids on homes and dispensaries all across the state, destroying the lives and livelihoods of dispensary owners like Joe Byron and Joe Grumbine, forcing them to spend two years fighting for their Constitutional right to defend themselves in court. That comes to a total of over forty courtroom appearances, costing taxpayers between $10,000 and $15,000 per day for the courtroom alone, according to Judge Charles D. Sheldon's own calculations.

Then we got an eighteen-day trial in a kangaroo court that wrangled a guilty verdict out of an ill-instructed jury, thanks to procedural maneuverings by the prosecuting attorney and a blatantly biased judge who actually recused himself on sentencing day “to prevent the appearance of bias.”

And then, we got a brand new judge, two more court dates and a damn good chance to start the whole thing over again. The problem is, we also have a damn good chance of seeing the Joes taken away in handcuffs. Their third day in court with Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani is Friday the 13th of April, 2012, at which time Judge Comparet-Cassani will rule on attorney Allison B. Margolin’s Motion for a New Trial.

And another thirty-five or forty grand of hard-earned taxpayer dollars circles the drain.

On April 2, 2012, Oaksterdam University – “the Harvard of Hemp” in Oakland, California, where hundreds of students have learned how to comply with state law in all things relating to medical marijuana – was raided by storm troopers from the DEA, the IRS, and the Oakland Police Department, instantly bankrupting founder Richard Lee, destroying more lives and livelihoods, handcuffing patients, some in wheel chairs or on crutches, and roughly shoving protesters with riot-control batons.

What we got for our money was a police state.


Don’t worry. We’ve got him good.
~ Detective Oscar Valenzuela, Long Beach Police Department

When we first reported on the Byron/Grumbine case in June of 2011, it was already a long and twisted saga. On December 10, 2008, Joe Grumbine had been arrested for marijuana possession in Riverside County, California. He and his partner Joe Byron were operating their first medical marijuana dispensary in Garden Grove, Orange County. Grumbine was driving home to Riverside County and transporting medical marijuana when he was stopped for having a trailer ball on his bumper.

He took his case to trial, and seventeen court days (times ten or fifteen grand per day in tax dollars) later, on November 2, 2009, he was exonerated of all charges. The Judge stated that, based on proof of patients, patient outreach programs and a huge witness list, “the Court finds that Mr. Grumbine was acting in accordance with California law.”

Right after Grumbine was exonerated, Long Beach Police Detective Oscar Valenzuela of Los Angeles County consoled the Riverside County District Attorney, saying “Don’t worry. We’ve got him good.”

Five weeks later, on December 17, 2009, all hell broke loose for Byron and Grumbine. Their homes and businesses, and those of their employees and volunteers – seventeen locations altogether – were swooped on by a SWAT team of over a hundred and twenty policemen with weapons drawn, drug-sniffing dogs, helicopters and a fleet of vehicles. The City of Long Beach has refused to put a price tag on the raids, in violation of multiple Freedom of Information Act requests by patient-activist Charles Monson. Claiming they don’t keep track of hours that way, Long Beach continues to stonewall on the cost of the raids, but estimates go as high as 2.4 million dollars – and higher.


“Expert” Training
Let me be clear about this: I don’t have a drug problem. I have a police problem.
~ Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones

On October 9, 2009, just two months before Byron and Grumbine were raided, the California Narcotics Officers Association put on a training course called The Eradication of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County.

Touted as a “must class for patrol, parole, probation and narcotic investigators,” the whole concept goes against the intent of the Compassionate Use Act, not to mention the will of the people. The class was hosted by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley (who enjoys an annual salary of $301,731 plus benefits and retirement, courtesy of you, the taxpayer); City Attorney Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich (who rakes in a cool $214,546 taxpayer dollars, plus bennies, every year); President of the California Police Chief’s Association and Pasadena Police Chief Barney Melekian (pocketing between $182,000 and $228,000 of your money per year, according to my calculations); and several other high-end law enforcement officials, including Head Deputy District Attorney, Joey Esposito of the LADA Major Narcotics Division – a team of specially trained attorneys responsible for prosecuting significant narcotics trafficking organizations in Los Angeles County. This outfit ensures that “highly effective prosecutors represent the people of the State of California in cases against drug traffickers most responsible for the drug supply.”

And with these well-chosen words, our local compassionate caregivers are placed squarely in the cross-hairs of specially trained cops and lawyers whose main purpose in life is to set them up as traffickers and feed them into the for-profit prison system, which in turn feeds them.


Busted down on Bourbon Street
Set up like a bowling pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearing thin
They just won't let you be.
~ The Grateful Dead, "Truckin'"

Denial: Not the Solution

The October 9, 2009 eradication training course offered participants an update on laws and current case decisions pertaining to Proposition 215 and SB 420 – which is why the Byron and Grumbine case is so important. Every case we lose gives them more ammunition to use against us. In spite of this, while a devoted handful of fellow dispensary owners have joined the ongoing protests in Long Beach on behalf of Byron and Grumbine (under the banner of non-profit support group The Human Solution, a.k.a. the Green Team,) far too many have not.

Unfortunately, they remain in denial about the danger they themselves face until it’s too late and they find themselves staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, while SWAT teams haul away all their computers (a.k.a. means of communication,) business records (a.k.a. exculpatory evidence,) patient lists (a.k.a. defense witnesses), cash (a.k.a. bail money and lawyer fees, now unavailable for that use) and medicine (to the detriment of patients whose safe access is mercilessly snatched away .)
The California Narcotics Officers Association training course detailed how to conduct a dispensary investigation. What it didn’t detail was how to recognize a legally compliant dispensary. The course offered specific training in the Compassionate Use Act… “to qualify as an expert when arresting person(s) in possession of quantities of marijuana for sale and are claiming the exemption under Proposition 215.” [My italics -- intended to highlight the prejudicial and undermining language used to demonize medical marijuana providers and thus, whip a room full of cops into a frothing-at-the-mouth gang of storm troopers out to save the world from evil drug cartels. Which, of course, they aren’t doing because they’re too busy copping doobies at dispensaries.]

K is for Kangaroo
Only in the courtroom can this special training be properly appreciated. This is where your friendly medical marijuana provider morphs into a low-life street thug, or in the case of Byron and Grumbine, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” This is where you get to witness exactly what evidence your specially trained attorneys teach your peace officers to collect and, more importantly, what evidence not to collect, in order to get a conviction.
In retrospect, the exonerating statement by the judge in Grumbine’s Riverside case appears to have inspired a list of items the Long Beach police, prosecutor and judge, acting as the proverbial well-oiled machine, systematically prevented (or tried to prevent) from being admitted into evidence in the Byron/Grumbine case – namely, “proof of patients, patient outreach programs and a huge witness list.”
We will delve into such tactics in a later post, but for now here’s a taste: After the California Appellate Court granted an appeal by Byron’s attorney, Allison B. Margolin, and ordered Judge Sheldon to allow the Joes an affirmative defense, or explain himself to them, Sheldon gruffly allowed the defendants six witnesses each. The prosecution was allowed as many witnesses as she wanted. OK, here’s another taste: counting the number of defense objections overruled vs. prosecution objections overruled became a challenging spectator sport for the Green Team. My own notes are littered with hash-marks attempting to count them. Many were overruled before the word “objection” was out of the attorney’s mouth. Conversely, there were times the judge said, “sustained,” before the word “objection” was out of the prosecutor’s mouth. If lives didn’t hang in the balance, it would have been hilarious.

Jurors Denied the Whole Truth

In the courtroom, as the jury watches hours of soporific video secretly shot by an undercover cop with a fake ID and a real doctor’s recommendation, obtained by lying through his teeth, they don’t see the free wheelchairs in the corner, or the free food and clothing, or the job boards. They see price lists and “Twitter Specials” (highly incriminating; be warned. Ditto free doobies for first-time patients) that supposedly prove medical marijuana dispensaries to be fronts for drug traffickers. And if they can’t make that stick, they re-frame the crime itself. Suddenly the offense is “making a profit” instead of the original charge of felony marijuana “sales.”

The jury is then shown “Profit and Loss Statements” generated by the cops’ own computer programs, using incomplete financial records seized in raids. They don’t see the extent of start-up costs or business expenses. They don’t see how much of the medicine is there on consignment; the prosecution counts the street value of it as money going straight into dispensary owners’ pockets. But it’s actually money owed to the growers once the product is sold. It’s not an asset, it’s a debt. But the jury only sees money coming in -- money the Oscar Valenzuelas of the world misrepresent as “profit.” Misrepresent, as in lie through their teeth.

The overall effect is this: No matter what you do to comply with the law, you’re still wrong.

At the same time, through a series of well-honed courtroom procedures by the prosecutor and the judge – a self-described veteran of some 1,400 trials -- the defense team is systematically denied the right to defend their clients. A classic example was showcased when Grumbine’s attorney, Chris Glew tried to ascertain where Detective Valenzuela acquired his “expert” status on medical marijuana. When Mr. Glew started to ask whether Valenzuela had attended the above-mentioned eradication class, Judge Sheldon cut him off.

Together, Judge Sheldon and prosecutor Jodi Castano prevented either defense attorney from properly cross-examining the witness or ascertaining his credentials as a so-called expert. And this is only the opening salvo. We’ll explore these eye-popping tactics and other courtroom shenanigans in the near future. But I have to confess: I’ve spent four and a half months attempting to read my notes from the trial. Every time I open one of a stack of hastily scribbled notebooks, I am overwhelmed – not just by the sheer volume of it all, but also by the crushing weight of what it represents.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines kangaroo court as “a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted.” Wikipedia states that the “outcome of a trial by kangaroo court is essentially determined in advance, usually for the purpose of ensuring conviction, either by going through the motions of manipulated procedure or by allowing no defense at all.”

This accurately describes every day of this long and punishing trial. The Green Team – a dedicated group of medical marijuana patients and advocates, gathered under the banner of The Human Solution – witnessed every minute of it. Many of us took copious notes, which turns out to be a good thing because Judge Sheldon conveniently “shredded” every copy of his mumbled and confusing instructions to the jury, and the court reporter just happened to omit them from the transcript.

Rory Murray, a talented singer/songwriter and artist, made drawings of the courtroom proceedings. He too has provided a vital service, as Judge Sheldon barred cameras and recording devices from his courtroom. Two of Rory's drawings helped illustrate this story.

In our next post, we will take a closer look at the Green Team - true patriots who have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice. Were it not for a courtroom full of citizen witnesses this story would never have come to light. And the Joes would – and still may – join millions of their incarcerated fellow citizens who were similarly set-up, demonized, railroaded and imprisoned – on our dime.


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