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This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Probation officers on drugs, perjuring narcs, and cops helping out drug dealers. Just another week of drug war-related police corruption. Let's get to it:

In Waynesville, North Carolina, a Buncombe County probation officer was arrested last Thursday on multiple charges for allegedly trying to buy 60 oxycodone tablets from an undercover officer posing as a drug seller. Jill Suddreth allegedly tried to flush the pills down the toilet when taken to the detention center. She is charged with solicitation to commit a felony, conspiracy, possession and more. She out on bond right now.

In San Luis Obispo, California, a former San Luis Obispo County DA's investigator was arrested Monday on charges he lied in a search warrant affidavit to a judge while a member of the Sheriff's Narcotics Task Force. AJ Santana filed an affidavit for a search warrant in August 2014 and successfully had it sealed "to protect an ongoing investigation," but officials discovered he had lied. Then they dropped the charges against the man Santana targeted. He's looking at up to 18 months in state prison.

In Houston, Texas, a former Houston Police officer was convicted Tuesday of helping her drug-dealing boyfriend transport cocaine between Huntsville and Houston. Jasmine Bonner, 27, went down after a confidential informant set up a sting in which Bonner and her boyfriend took possession of a kilo of cocaine. They were arrested as they drove away with the dope. She copped to one count of aiding and abetting possession with the intent to distribute cocaine, and is looking at up to 40 years in federal prison, with a mandatory minimum of five years.

In Miami, a Miami-Dade County police detective was sentenced last Wednesday to three years in prison for giving information and tips to a marijuana trafficking organization. Roderick Silva admitted tipping off the Santisteban family pot crew to a police list of suspected grow houses and accepted $1500 for his trouble. He copped to one count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

Chronicle AM: OR Gov Signs Marijuana Sales Bill, More British Cops Turning Blind Eye to Marijuana, More (7/28/15)

Any adult will be able to buy marijuana at Oregon dispensaries beginning October 1, some British police are moving toward de facto decriminalization, dirty Philly cops beat a corruption rap and are now suing city officials, and more.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) has signed a bill allowing recreational marijuana sales at dispensaries beginning October 1. (or.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Governor Signs Bill Allowing Recreational Marijuana Sales to Begin October 1. Gov. Kate Brown (D) has signed into law Senate Bill 460, which will allow medical marijuana dispensaries to begin selling marijuana to all adults on October 1. Pot shops other than existing dispensaries won't come on line until next year.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Supreme Court Says Medical Marijuana Card Doesn't Grant Sweeping Immunity, But… In a pair of cases regarding medical marijuana caregivers, the state's high court has ruled that the medical marijuana law does not grant sweeping immunity to cardholders, but sent the cases back to lower courts to determine whether the defendants are entitled to immunity. The court seems to be getting tired of medical marijuana. It has addressed the issue nine times in the past seven years. "The many inconsistencies in the law have caused confusion for medical marijuana caregivers and patients, law enforcement, attorneys, and judges, and have consumed valuable public and private resources to interpret and apply it," wrote Justice Bryan Zahra.

Law Enforcement

Acquitted Philly Cops Sue City Officials for Defamation. Five members of a notorious Philadelphia Police dope squad who managed to avoid federal corruption convictions and who have won the right to return to work are now suing the district attorney, the mayor, and the police commissioner. They say they were unfairly maligned and fired. After numerous reports of corrupt activities, DA Seth Williams began refusing their cases in 2012 and that "started a gigantic, destructive avalanche of severe and permanent wrongs, damages and injustices" that continues to affect the officers today," their attorney wrote. They had been accused of routinely beating drug suspects, stealing money, and lying on police reports. One member of the squad pleaded guilty and testified against the others, but the jury did not convict.

International

Three More British Police Forces Will Basically Ignore Small Pot Grows. Police in Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey are joining police in Durham in quietly turning a blind eye to small-scale marijuana cultivation and use. While the Conservative government continues to have a hard-line stance on marijuana, the cops say they have better things to do. "On the list of priorities cannabis moves a long way down the chain," one police official explained.

Chronicle AM: AZ MJ Probable Cause Conundrum, CDC Warns on MedMJ Edibles, Peyote Protest, More (7/24/15)

Two Arizona appeals court panels have offered up clashing rulings this week on whether the smell of pot is still probable cause for a search, Michigan initiative fundraising reports tell an interesting story, changes in Washington state's medical marijuana program go into effect today, and more.

Peyote buttons, sacrament of the Native American Church. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Appeals Court Upholds Search Based on Marijuana Odor. Whether the odor of marijuana is probable cause for a search or a search warrant now looks like an issue heading to the state Supreme Court. Just days after one appeals court panel ruled that the state's medical marijuana law means it is not grounds for a search warrant, a second panel has ruled that it is. In Thursday's case, the appeals court upheld the actions of police officers who searched a vehicle after they smelled burnt marijuana. The panel held that the medical marijuana law didn't make marijuana legal, but only provided immunity from prosecution to those who had medical marijuana ID cards. "The fact that a registered patient under the AMMA with a valid registry identification card can affirmatively claim immunity from arrest, prosecution or penalty for possession of use of marijuana .... does not eliminate the significance of the smell of marijuana as an indicator of criminal activity in this case," Judge Samuel Thumma wrote.

Grassroots Effort Leads in Fundraising Among Michigan Legalization Initiatives. Campaign finance reports reveal that the Michigan Cannabis Coalition (MCC), backed by wealthy Oakland County interests, has only $1,000 in the bank, while the grassroots MILegalize has raised $60,000, with more than $100,000 in matching funds pledged. MCC got a $21,000 donation from an Oakland county Republican political operative, but the same day, it sent a $20,000 check to signature-gathering firm. A third group, the Michigan Responsibility Council, which wants to create a cultivation monopoly like the one championed by ResponsibleOhio, appears to have gone quiet. Its website is defunct, it hasn't displayed any initiative language, and it will not reveal the identities of its leaders.

New Hampshire Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. A new WMUR Granite State poll has support for legalization at 60% and support for decriminalization even higher at 72%. Support has climbed six points for legalization and nine points for decriminalization since the last WMUR Granite State poll in May. The state legislature has considered legalization, but has so far refused to pass it. Click on the link for more poll results and methodology.

Medical Marijuana

CDC Warns of "Potential Danger" From Edibles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today released a report citing the case of a Wyoming college student who fell to his death after eating edibles in Colorado to warn of the "potential danger" with the products. "Although the decedent in this case was advised against eating multiple servings at one time," the CDC article says, "he reportedly consumed all five of the remaining servings of the THC-infused cookie within 30-60 minutes after the first serving." The CDC noted that the coroner in the case listed "marijuana intoxication" as a contributing factor in the death, which was classified as an accident.

Washington State Medical Marijuana Program Changes Now In Effect. Recently passed legislation designed to bring the program in line with the state's legalization system went into effect today. The Liquor Control Board is now the Liquor and Cannabis Control Board, PTSD and traumatic brain injury are now considered qualifying conditions, a voluntary patient database (which patients must join if they want the tax breaks for medical marijuana) is now in effect, the number of plants in a household is limited to 15 no matter how many patients live there, and doctors who write more than one medical marijuana authorization a day must report their totals to the Department of Health.

Peyote

Salt Lake City Religious Freedom Rally Calls for End to Utah Ban on Sacramental Use. Protesters gathered at the state capital in Salt Lake City Thursday to advocate for the right to use peyote as part of their religious observances. The demonstration was organized by the Tahteya Topa (Four Winds) Native American Church of Utah, which is allowed under federal law to use the cactus for religious purposes. The Utah law bans anyone who is not at least one-quarter Indian from using it for religious purposes. "It's supposed to be 25% [Native American heritage], but what they're really doing is trying to kill a religion by saying you have to have a certain blood… Religion is not about race," said the church's David Hamblin.

Chronicle AM: ResponsibleOhio Fights On, GA Cop Indicted in Baby Boo-Boo SWAT Raid, More (7/23/15)

ResponsibleOhio has about a week to come up with 40,000 more signatures, more Americans than ever admit smoking pot, e-sports is about to begin drug testing, a Georgia cop gets indicted for lying about probable cause in the Baby Boo Boo SWAT raid case, and more.

The question right now isn't should it or shouldn't it make the ballot, but will it or won't it?
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Legalization Initiative Still Fighting to Get on Ballot. The ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative campaign, which state officials say came up 35,000 signatures short in its effort to get its measure on the November ballot, says it is sure it had enough valid signatures and will go to the state Supreme Court to contest the results. "There are over 21,000 voters who were incorrectly identified as invalid. We want to make sure they have their signatures count. We also see that there are 40,000 signatures that weren't reviewed," spokesman Ian James said. The group is also gathering more signatures -- it has a 10-day window to try to make up any shortfall.

Gallup Poll Finds Largest Number Yet of Americans Admitting to Having Smoked Weed. Some 44% of Americans admit to having smoked marijuana, the largest number ever record by the pollsters. When Gallup first asked the question back in 1969, only 4% admitted to having tried it. By 1985, the figure was at 33%. Gallup wasn't sure if the rising numbers reflected more people actually using marijuana or more people being comfortable admitting to it. "The changes over time may reflect either an increase in the percentage who have tried the drug, or an increased willingness to admit to having done so in the past," Gallup explained.

Medical Marijuana

Senate Appropriations Committee Approves DC Pot Shops, Marijuana Banking Bill. The committee today approved a bill today allowing the nation's capital to establish regulated marijuana stores and let banks provide financial services to state-legalized marijuana dispensaries. The votes came on the financial services spending bill, which includes language removing a federal ban on regulated marijuana commerce in the District, which legalized possession and cultivation last year. The committee also approved an amendment allowing banks to provide services to marijuana businesses where they are legal.

Marijuana Policy Project Report Criticizes New Hampshire Medical Marijuana Program. In a report marking the two year anniversary of the signing into law of the state's medical marijuana program, the activist group is harshly critical of the state's failures in implementing the law. The report title pretty much says it all: Confusion, Delays, and Continued Arrests: A Two-Year Retrospective on New Hampshire's "Therapeutic Use of Cannabis" Law. Click either link to read the report.

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona ACLU Files Lawsuit Claiming State's Asset Forfeiture Laws Are Unconstitutional. The ACLU of Arizona today filed a federal lawsuit in Phoenix arguing that the laws "have created a lucrative system in which police and prosecutors are heavily incentivized to seize and forfeit property." The group says the law allows "law enforcement [agencies to] supplement their budgets without any legislative oversight." The ACLU is representing a Sun Tan Valley woman whose pick-up truck was seized after her son borrowed it and was arrested for allegedly stealing a hood ornament and putting it on the truck.

Drug Testing

Drug Testing Comes to E-Sports. The Electronic Sports League, the largest online gaming organization, has announced that it will adopt policies to keep drugs out of virtual sports. The move comes in the wake of ongoing controversy about the use of Adderall by e-sports players. A high-ranked e-sports player, Kory Friesen, ignited the commotion by not only admitting to use of the drug, but claiming it was prevalent. "We were all on Adderall," he said in a widely-copied interview.

Law Enforcement

Georgia Cop Indicted Over Baby Boo-Boo SWAT Raid. A Habersham County sheriff's deputy has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the May 2014 raid that left a toddler severely injured by a flash-bang grenade. Nikki Autry, a special agent of the Mountain Judicial Circuit Criminal Investigation and Suppression Team (NCIS), has been indicted for lying in a search warrant affidavit and providing the same false information to obtain an arrest warrant in the case. Autry is accused of claiming that one of his informants made a meth buy at the address when the alleged meth purchase was made by someone else and lying about whether it was a "true and honorable informant." Nor had Autry confirmed there was heavy traffic in and out of the house, as he claimed. His alleged lies were the basis for a judge signing off on the "no knock" warrant that resulted in the bad raid.

International

Marijuana Cultivation on the Upsurge in Sweden. Swedish media are reporting an increasing number of marijuana cultivation busts. There were 904 pot farms reported to police last year, up fourfold from 2011, and police said they were on track for similar numbers this year.

Medical Marijuana Update

There's medical marijuana news from the far Pacific, with Hawaii okaying dispensaries and Guam releasing draft medical marijuana regulations, plus more.

Colorado

Last Wednesday, state officials rejected medical marijuana for PTSD. Health officials voted against adding PTSD to the list of qualifying ailments for medical marijuana. They cited scant research on the issue. "We can't have physicians counseling people in favor of it because we don't have data to show it's correct," said Jill Hunsaker-Ryan, one of the board members who voted no.

Hawaii

Last Tuesday, Hawaii began moving toward licensing dispensaries. After Gov. David Ige (D) signed a bill allowing for eight dispensaries to operate in the state, state officials are moving forward with developing rules and regulations for the program. They say to they will begin accepting license applications early next year. The move comes 15 years after Hawaii became the first state to okay medical marijuana through the legislative process.

Guam

Last Thursday, the US protectorate released medical marijuana draft regulations. The Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services has released draft rules for the island territory's medical marijuana program. Guamanians voted to allow medical marijuana in last November's elections. The rules must be approved by the legislature. Click on the link to read the draft rules.

Michigan

Last week, Michigan cops raided medical marijuana dispensaries. Police departments in the greater Detroit area have shut down several dispensaries in the past week, in some cases bringing felony charges against the operators. Raids, arrests, and seizures took place in Shelby Township and Detroit last week. While the city has an estimated 180 dispensaries, they are illegal under the state's medical marijuana law.

On Tuesday, a state panel deferred a decision on medical marijuana for autism. The Michigan Medical Marijuana Review Panel postponed action on recommending whether or not autism should be a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The panel said it wanted more time to review the evidence.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Jail guards smuggling dope, cops helping drug dealers, cops ripping off drug dealers. Familiar stories, repeated over and over. Here's this week's bunch. Let's get to it:

In Hagerstown, Maryland, a Maryland state prison guard was arrested last Wednesday on charges he was smuggling drugs into the prison. Matthew Charles Scott, 28, went down after he obtained drugs and cash from a snitch working for a county drug task force. He is charged with attempting to possess controlled dangerous substances with the intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute narcotics.

In Lafayette, Louisiana, a Lafayette Parish jail guard was arrested last Wednesday for bringing contraband, including unspecified "illegal substances," into the jail. Jayron Lenoir, 27, went down after authorities received a tip that he was smuggling in goodies. He is charged with introduction of contraband into a penal facility and malfeasance in office.

In Newark, New Jersey, an Essex County sheriff's deputy was arrested last Thursday in connection with a sprawling heroin distribution conspiracy. Officer Robert Andrews, 28, is charged with hindering the investigation into the drug ring and fourth degree obstructing administration of law. He allegedly provided information to one of the subjects of the investigation and assisted in identifying law enforcement officers. More than four dozen people have been arrested in the crackdown on the ring, dubbed Operation TIDE.

In McAllen, Texas, a former Mission police officer was arrested Monday for allegedly stealing several bundles of cocaine from a home and staging a fake drug seizure a few days later to try to conceal the theft. Hector "Jo Jo" Mendez, 45, is charged with possession with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. The charge carries a maximum life prison sentence and $10 million fine. The 17-year veteran had been assigned to a DEA drug task force.

In Houston, Texas, a former Houston police officer was convicted Monday for her role in a cocaine trafficking operation. Jasmine Bonner, 27, had admitted aiding a major cocaine supplier after he had already been identified as a target of a federal drug investigation. He was her boyfriend. She had been arrested in possession of a pound of cocaine she had agreed to transport. She was convicted of aiding and abetting possession with the intent to distribute cocaine. She's looking at a mandatory minimum five years in federal prison, and up to 40 years.

Chronicle AM: CA Blue Ribbon Marijuana Report is Out, DEA Criticized for Blocking Snitch Probe, More (7/22/15)

A long-awaited (and overdue) report on California marijuana policy reforms is out, an Arizona appeals court rules that the odor of marijuana in a medical marijuana state is not sufficient grounds for a search warrant, the DEA gets criticized over its snitch program, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Blue Ribbon Panel on Marijuana Releases Report, Calls for Strict Controls. The panel, led by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), issued its Pathways Report: Policy Options for Regulating Marijuana in California today, and called for a regulatory system that prevents childhood use and warns that "this industry should not be the next California Gold Rush." The 93-report is a comprehensive look at the range of policy options facing the state. Read it.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

New Hampshire "Drug Czar" Releases Recommendations for Fighting Opiate Abuse. John Wozmak, senior director for Substance Misuse and Behavioral Health, Tuesday released a list of 22 recommendations for fighting opiate abuse, including making naloxone more widely available and strengthening the state's prescription drug monitoring program. Click on the link to see the full list.

Law Enforcement

Arizona Appeals Court Rules Smell of Weed Alone is Not Grounds for Search Warrant. The legalization of medical marijuana in the state means that the odor of weed by itself is not probable cause for obtaining a search warrant. "Medical marijuana use pursuant to AMMA is lawful under Arizona law," he wrote. "Therefore its scent alone does not disclose whether a crime has occurred." Instead, police must now rely on an "odor-plus" standard where additional evidence is needed to justify a warrant.

Justice Department Inspector Report Criticizes DEA on Informants. DEA agents wrote their own rules for a secret snitch program and then tried to block the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from conducting its probe into the program, the just released OIG report says. "Our audit work thus far has been seriously delayed by numerous instances of uncooperativeness from the DEA," the inspector general wrote. Although the OIG set out to review the confidential informant program in February 2014, the OIG has had only "limited" success, it said. But the OIG's audit isn't yet completed. Stay tuned.

Chronicle AM: The Case of the Dead ND Student Snitch, Brit Police Force De Facto Decriminalizes, More (7/21/15)

There will be an open container law for weed in Washington state, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) files a bill to expunge some federal marijuana offense records, cops in one British county effectively decriminalize small-time marijuana offenses, there's a mystery surrounding a dead North Dakota student informant, and more.

British police in Durham have decided they have better things to do than go after small-time pot offenders. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Congressman Introduces Federal Clean Slate for Marijuana Offenses Act. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) today introduced a bill designed to expunge federal marijuana offenses that are no longer illegal in a number of states. The Clean Slate for Marijuana Offenses Act of 2015 would clear the records of those federally charged with state-legal marijuana activity and those federally charged with possession of less than an ounce. It's not yet up on the congressional web site. Activists said its effects would be mainly symbolic.

Marijuana Legalization Money Being Raised in Maine. There are two competing legalization campaigns in the state, and both are fundraising. The Marijuana Policy Project-affiliated Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has raised $104,166 so far this year, with $50,000 coming from MPP in June, while Legalize Maine has raised $55,575.

Washington State Has Open Container Law for Marijuana. Effective September 26, drivers will be required to store their weed in the trunks of their vehicles in an unopened container, or in a part of the passenger compartment "not normally occupied or directly accessible by" the driver or passengers. That's a provision of House Bill 1276, which Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed into law on June 30. Medical Marijuana 

Michigan Panel Defers Decision on Medical Marijuana for Autism. The Michigan Medical Marijuana Review Panel postponed action on recommending whether or not autism should be a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The panel said it wanted more time to review the evidence.

Sentencing

Federal Prosecutors Really Want Their Mandatory Minimums. Although only a tiny fraction of federal drug crimes involve violence, federal prosecutors are demanding that their mandatory minimum sentences be left unchanged. National Association of Assistant US Attorneys head Steve Cook warns that it would be "a huge mistake" to change federal sentencing laws. "The federal criminal justice system is not broken," he added, claiming that "drug trafficking is inherently violent." Oddly enough, only 142 of more than 20,000 federal drug offenses prosecuted last year involved violence or threats of violence. Cook also wants more prisons, calling them "a good investment."

Law Enforcement

Did a North Dakota Student Get Killed After Campus Cops Turned Him Into a Snitch? The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a lengthy piece on the case of Andew Sadek, who went missing two weeks before graduation last year. His body was later found in the Red River with a bullet wound to the head and a backpack full of rocks. He had been busted for small-time marijuana sales on campus and agreed to become an informant for campus police. No one has been charged in his death, and police aren't even certain if it was a homicide or a suicide. Read the whole thing.

International

British Police Force Quits Trying to Find Small Pot Grows. The police in County Durham and Darlington are giving up on proactively tracking down small marijuana grows in a de facto move toward decriminalization. Durham Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg said police there will also offer people caught with small amounts of weed to avoid criminal prosecution by entering a program aimed at ending low-level offending. "By and large we are saying it is not the top of our list to go out and try to pick up people smoking joints on street corners but if it's blatant or we get complaints, officers will act," Hogg said. "It's about keeping people out of the criminal justice system and reducing costs, it's about being more productive with the way we approach things. It's also about seeking to prevent future use by keeping people out of prison."

Santa Muerte Goes to Court: The Curious Case of the Narco Saint's Prayer [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Does praying to a "narco saint" constitute evidence that someone is a drug trafficker? In an unusual case out of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, the court said "no." In overturning the conviction of the woman doing the praying, the court both acted to protect First Amendment freedoms and opened a window into Santa Muerte, the unofficial Saint Death venerated by hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of poor Mexicans, some of whom are members of the criminal underworld.

Santa Muerte shrine, Nuevo Laredo (wikipedia/not home)
The case,US v. Medina-Copete and Goxcon-Chagal, unfolded on June 28 2011, when New Mexico State Police Sergeant Arsenio Chavez pulled over a truck with Nevada plates on I-40 in Albuquerque for failing to maintain adequate distance from the vehicle ahead of it. According to court testimony, Chavez felt suspicious when he noticed the occupants appeared nervous, and the woman riding on the passenger side could be heard reciting a handwritten prayer she held in her hands.

In the truck were Tulsa residents Rafael Goxcon-Chagal and Maria Medina-Copete. Also in the truck, stashed in a secret compartment, were two pounds of 90% pure methamphetamine. The couple, who had borrowed the truck, denied any knowledge of the drugs, but they were nonetheless charged with trafficking meth. They were convicted in August 2012 for conspiracy to distribute more than 50 pounds of meth and firearms possession. They were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.

The prayer the woman was reciting was to Santa Muerte, and the fact the she directed her adorations toward the Mexican "narco saint" helped convict her of drug trafficking.

Who is Santa Muerte?

For years, religious experts and law enforcement authorities have called Santa Muerte a "narco saint," worshipped by drug traffickers and who believe she has the power to protect them from their enemies -- who range from other traffickers to the police.

Santa Muerte is typically portrayed as a skeletal woman, wearing robes or a bridal gown, and holding a scythe -- a sort of Grim Reaper figure. For the millions that venerate her, she is a figure of compassion, protection, and unconditional love who will protect her devotees from evil. She is the saint of the marginalized, as well as the criminal.

For the Catholic Church, worship of Santa Muerte is blasphemy. Still, her popularity continues to grow, and each November, thousands of worshippers gather at her main shrine, in the rough and tumble Tepito district of Mexico City to get her blessings and bestow gifts -- both humbly modest and gaudily golden -- on her statue.

She is estimated to have 10 to 12 million devotees, not just in Mexico, but, increasingly, in the US and other Latin American counties as well.

Muerte, the Skeleton Saint."

While it began among the lumpenproletariat of Mexico City and has always been associated with criminals and narcos, the experts concede that Santa Muerte is worshipped by many who are simply poor and on society's fringes.

"Santa Muerte has been used as evidence and used as probable cause in some cases," Chesnut explained. "But she is not just a narco-saint, and many of her devotees aren't involved in criminal behavior. Some drug traffickers pray to Saint Jude, a recognized Catholic Saint, but that deity is rarely brought up in criminal cases," he pointed out.

Chesnut called the appeals court's ruling in the case "a landmark decision," adding that it marked the first time to his knowledge "that a conviction has been overturned because a folk saint was used in trial."

Challenging the "Expert Testimony"

Goxcon-Chagal andMedina-Copete appealed their convictions, with their attorneys arguing that federal prosecutors and the district court judge had subjected them to harmful error by allowing an expert on religious iconography to testify that Santa Muerte was so intimately connected to drug trafficking that Medina-Copete's invocation was evidence the pair knew illegal drugs were secreted in their vehicle.

The expert was US Marshal Robert Almonte, producer of the documentary, Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld. Almonte is also the author of two books, "Evolution of Narcotic Investigation" and "Managing Covert Operations."

The appellate attorneys also argued that Almonte's testimony about Santa Muerte 's association with narcotics severely undermined the defendants' defense that they had no knowledge of the drugs because the truck had been borrowed from one of Goxcon-Chagal's friend. They argued that the admission of Almonte's testimony violated federal rules of evidence.

Federal prosecutors retorted that the testimony was admissible under rules about evidence relating to "tools of the trade" of the drug business.

The 10th Circuit disagreed. In their ruling last year, the court found that prosecutors had indeed violated the rules of evidence by using Almonte's testimony, which the panel likened to "psychobabble."

The district court had erred in allowing the testimony because "it applied our 'tool of the trade' jurisprudence to Almonte's purported area of expertise without considering whether a prayer could qualify as a 'tool of the drug trade,' " wrote Judge Carlos Lucero for the majority. He is the first Hispanic judge to sit on the circuit.

US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Carlos Lucero (law.pace.edu)
The lower court also erred because 'it allowed Almonte to testify as an expert based on his experience without considering the relevance or breadth of that experience, thereby eliding the 'facts or data' requirements found under [the rules of evidence], " Lucero continued.

It was a double whammy: The prosecution did not show Almonte knew what he was talking about, and the lower court misinterpreted the rules of evidence to allow religious beliefs to be considered tools of the drug trade.

As a result, Judge Lucero noted, "Almonte's expert testimony characterizing the mere presence of the prayer as a very good indicator of possible criminal activity influenced the outcome of the trial in a prejudicial manner."

Lucero didn't hold back with what he thought of Almonte's testimony, either.

"He essentially painted the defendants in this case as heretics, holding beliefs not recognized by the Catholic Church either in Mexico or the United States. A criminal trial is not a place for a theological disputation on sainthood and the power of prayer. We urge the government to be cautious about appearing to take sides in theological debates," he wrote.

Out of the Frying Pan

While the 10th Circuit's decision reversed Goxcon-Chagel and Medina-Copete's convictions, it didn't free them. Instead they were transferred from federal prison to a federal detention center for retrial.

Things didn't look good for the pair. They had, after all, been caught with the meth, and the appeals court allowed to stand trial testimony from a DEA agent about the unlikelihood of drug traffickers sending loads of drugs with unknowing couriers.

Defense attorneys explored both the circumstances of the traffic stop and any investigations that might have preceded it, but were unable to find wriggle room there.

"Part of the problem is the standard permitting 'pretext stops,'" Goxcon-Chagel attorney Katherine Converse told the Chronicle. "Another problem is the difficulty of learning whether there was any NSA involvement in the stop," she added, referring to recent revelations of NSA intelligence being fed to DEA officers and on to local law enforcement agencies to launch drug investigations against potential suspects.

After lengthy negotiations with federal prosecutors, and without much in the way of a defense to the drug charges, Converse and Media-Copete's attorney advised their clients to take a plea. In February, Goxcon-Chagel copped to the charges and got 7 ½ years; Medina-Cotete, the praying woman, got four. Because of time already served, she's already been released.

And she probably sent a prayer of thanks to Santa Muerte.

Here is the complete hand-written prayer to Santa Muerte recited by and recovered from Maria Medina-Copete:

For protection during a trip
Holy Spirit of Death, I invoke your Holy Name to ask you to help me in this venture.
Make my way over the mountains valleys and paths an easy one,
never stop bestowing upon me your good fortune
weave the destiny so that bad instincts vanish before me because of your powerful protection.
Prevent, Santa Muerte, problems from growing and embracing my heart, my
Lady, keep any illness from embracing my wings (Illegible)
Glorious Santa Muerte be my protector and light my path. Be my
advocate before the redeemer. Be my truth in times of darkness
Grant me the strength and faith to invoke your name
and to thank you now
and forever for all your favors
Amen
Oh miraculous Santa Muerte, Niña Blanca of my heart and right arm of god
our lord. Today I come to you with infinite devotion to implore you for
health, fortune and luck
Remove from my path (illegible) that hurts me, envy and misfortune; don't
allow my enemy's slander reach and harm my spirit
may no one prevent me from receiving the prosperity that I am asking of you today
my powerful lady bless the money that will reach my hands and multiply it
so that my family lacks for nothing
and I can outreach my hand to the needy that crosses my path
keep tragedy pain and shortage away from me
this votive candle I will light so that the radiance of your eyes forms an
invisible wall around me
grant me prudence and patience holy lady, Santa Reina de las Tinieblas
("Holy Queen of Darkness") strength, power and wisdom tell the elements
not to unleash their fury wherever they cross paths with me take care of my
happy surroundings and that I want to adorn decorate
in my Santa Muerte
amen

Chronicle AM: ResponsibleOhio Comes Up Short -- Maybe, MI Dispensary Busts, OK Forfeiture Abuses, More (7/20/15)

Ohio election officials have disqualified more than half the signatures gathered for the ResponsibleOhio initiative, but the battle isn't over; a Michigan legalization initiative gets rolling, an Oklahoma report raises the curtain on asset forfeiture abuses, and more.

Will they make the ballot or not? Check back in 10 days.
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Officials Say ResponsibleOhio Initiative Short on Signatures, But… The office of Secretary of State Jon Husted said today that the ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative had come up 29,000 signatures short of qualifying for the ballot. The campaign had gathered nearly 700,000 and needed only 305,000 to qualify, which would suggest a bad signature rate far, far above what the conventional wisdom suggests, maybe 25% or 30%. But it ain't over yet. ResponsibleOhio now has 10 days to try to make up the shortfall, and it says it will go to the state Supreme Court to fight over some 40,000 signatures that "remain unaccounted for" in the secretary of state's tally.

Michigan Legalization Initiative Kicks Off Signature Gathering Drive. Supporters of the Michigan Legalize initiative held a volunteer kickoff meeting in Marquette last Saturday. They will need to gather some 315,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot. There is at least one competing initiative in the state, too.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Cops Raid Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. Police departments in the greater Detroit area have shut down several dispensaries in the past week, in some cases bringing felony charges against the operators. Raids, arrests, and seizures took place in Shelby Township and Detroit last week. While the city has an estimated 180 dispensaries, they are illegal under the state's medical marijuana law.

Asset Forfeiture

Oklahoma Reports Show Asset Forfeiture Abuses. Audits by the State Auditor and Inspector's Office for the past five years show many district attorneys didn't have formal policies for dealing with seized property and that, in many cases, police didn't keep inventories of seized items. In some cases, seized money was spent before in was legally forfeited; in others, forfeiture cases were never filed for seized money. The report also found that seized money was used to pay for retirement plaques, a retirement party, doughnuts for a "spring roundup," and for a prosecutor's student loans and house rental. In the latter case, the prosecutor justified the rent payments saying that he spent most of his time on drug cases. Click on the link for more.

Drug Testing

Indiana Town to Stop Drug Testing Welfare Applicants… For Now. Black Township has agreed to stop drug testing applicants to its public assistance program until a lawsuit over whether the practice is constitutional is decided. The ACLU of Indiana filed the lawsuit in federal court in June. The judge in the case last week signed an order approving the agreement to stop drug testing until the case is settled.

Opiates and Heroin

New Jersey Governor Signs Prescription Monitoring Bill. Gov. Chris Christie (R) has signed a bill that will expand and tighten the state's prescription management program, one of a series of bills intended to combat the state's problem with heroin and prescription opiate use. The bill requires all doctors to register for the program and to check the program when patients return for a second refill on medications. The law is part of a 21-bill package targeting opioid and heroin abuse in New Jersey.

International

Australia Greens Call for Adoption of Portugal Drug Model. The Australian Green Party is calling for the country to follow the example of Portugal and decriminalize drug possession. It says Australia's current drug policies have failed, and the Portuguese model is the best path forward.

Drug War Issues

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