Schapelle Corby: Expendable Project Advocates for Release

It is unthinkable that a modern democracy would act the way that Australia did in the handling of the Schapelle Corby case. Rather than help provide evidence to the Corby defense team, the government concealed the fact that there were active criminal syndicates smuggling drugs through the baggage of Australian airports.  In an earlier post, I mentioned that there was a new documentary coming out on the subject. That documentary has been released, and is available online. The Expendable Project also released a 619-page dossier outlining the defense of Schapelle. But first lets talk about the documentary. You really can’t watch 5 minutes without getting hooked. The documentary explains that the trial of Schapelle Corby was little more than a “show” trial, and that the judge that convicted her had not acquitted a single person in over 500 cases. Additionally, the documentary explains how the Australian government was complicit by covering up the evidence that drug traffickers use tourists to unwittingly transport drugs within Australia. The documentary includes an interview with an Australian couple that also arrived in Bali with marijuana in their bags that wasn’t theirs. Unbelievably, the couple explained that when they called the Australian Consulate General, they were told to NOT report the matter to the Indonesian authorities under any circumstances, and to just get rid of the drugs as soon as possible. See the video below:

Also, the Expendable Project released a dossier of evidence proving Schapelle Corby’s innocence. The well-researched packet contains valuable facts and helpful infographics to help people understand the case. See for example, the dossier asks why anyone would want to smuggle 10 pounds of marijuana into Indonesia in the first place. The dossier cites a United Nation report showing the relative price of street drugs in different nations. In Australia, marijuana sells for $15 to $31 per gram, while in Indonesia, the same drug costs 20 to 30 cents per gram. The dossier explains that the airport security in Australia was so slack that the Australian authorities were likely scared to even discuss it because they did not want to reveal how vulnerable the nation was to terrorists attacks.

When is it appropriate for nations to try to fight for the rights of its citizens? Unfortunately, politics comes into play. When Corby was convicted, the Australians did not want to offend Indonesia which is the most populated Muslim country in the world. In the Amanda Knox case, we saw the United States slow to speak out against the injustices in the Italian criminal justice system. This was due largely to the fact that Italy is a powerful ally with troops fighting in Afghanistan.

It seems like momentum is building and more people are starting to take a look at this injustice.  What do you think about this case?



Dangers of Searching for a DUI Lawyer Online! A Spokane WA Study

What are the dangers of looking for a DUI lawyer on the internet?

Spokane dui attorney

I visited the site, entered confidential about my "case", and the info was later circulated on the internet. I typed in something private to see if the site would keep my "story" confidential or not. (See note at bottom of post)

There are several websites that pretend to be law firms, and take all the information you give them and broadcast it all over the internet.  For example “google” the phrase “dui lawyer” in your town. Most likely you will see the website or one of its affiliated sites.  What happens to the confidential information that you provide the site?  I did a test to find out.  I googled the phrase “Spokane dui lawyer” and came across the site, and typed in some very sensitive information about my “case”.  I conducted the experiment from a coffee shop in north Spokane.  About 5 minutes after I entered the details of my “Spokane DUI case”, the comment I had entered into the site came back to me in the form of a spam email to my law firm email account.   (I am not sure how I got on their email list, but I am sure that lawyers all over Washington received the same email.)  Basically, the site invites lawyers to contact the person who needs a DUI lawyer, and they eventually try to sell the referrals to the lawyers.  Below is the email that I received.


Spokane DUI lawyer

The websites view DUI suspects as a commodity, and then “flip” the clients to individuals lawyers for a fee. The problem is that the site doesn’t even alert people that the information will be shared. The lawyers who receive this information aren’t even necessarily DUI lawyers. These emails are broadcast all over the state. I receive about 10 or 12 emails per week from towns and cities all over. Many of the lawyers could be friends, neighbors, or relatives of the DUI suspect, and the lawyers are under no obligation to keep the information confidential. In Washington state, it is not uncommon for a lawyer to defend DUI cases in the county district courts, but to work as a part-time prosecutor in the local city or municipal courts. I have never done this, but the bar association does allow that. It is possible that a DUI suspect could have his or her DUI case information sent directly to the city prosecutor’s email inbox.

When I conducted the experiment in north Spokane, I encountered many fake websites pretending to be DUI law firms. Spokane DUI lawyer One other site worth mentioning is the fictitious “Johnson Law Firm”.  This “DUI law firm” is mysteriously located at the “147 S Orange street” all over America. As we can see from the adjacent photograph, the “dui law firm” is located at 147 S Orange St in Republic, WA, Okanogan, WA, and Colville WA. It is also located at 147 S Orange St in Topeka Kansas, and also at 147 S Orange St, in Topeka, Illinois.  (Yeah, I didn’t know there was a Topeka, Illinois either.)  Basically, there are webpages for fake DUI law firms in about 40,000 American cities.  There are about 244 such dui law firms in Washington State, including a law firm at “147 S Orange St” in Addy, Northport, Tonasket, Chewelah, Brewster, Bridgeport, Springdale, Oroville, Kettle Falls, Twisp, Winthrop, Marcus, Valley, Loon Lake, Omak, Peteros, etc. All of the websites have the same street address, the same photo of “Mr. Johnson”, and the same testimonial about what a great DUI defense lawyer the guy is.

So naturally I was curious about this “law firm”, and so I called the 1-800 number. My plan was to tell them that I was on my way over to see Mr. Johnson, and I was lost, and was trying to find this 147 S Orange street address in Colville, Washington. When I called the number, the phone rang to some overseas call center, and the man who answered the phone didn’t speak the greatest English. He did seem earnest enough, so rather than give him a hard time with lots of questions, I just let him take down my contact information. I left the number for one of my tracfones. The next day I got a couple calls and emails from a bunch of lawyers, some of whom I knew.  I then revealed my real name, and told them I was just screwing around, and that they shouldn’t pay the referral fee.  The lawyers had signed up for the referrals but didn’t seem to know where exactly the referrals were coming from.  They didn’t know who Mr. Johnson was.

DUI work can be complicated, and there is a lot a person needs to know to do a DUI jury trial, or to try to suppress the breath test, or to fight to keep a person’s driver’s license.   The work is very technical, and using these sites, a person might find a skilled lawyer or they might not. The danger of these websites is that they simply refer the cases to any lawyer who is willing to pay the referral fees.

Writers Note 2/21/12:  I received a comment criticizing this post for its insensitivity to people with HIV.  I was trying to reveal how much sensitive date could be revealed here, not to make light of the situation or exploit the shock value of this health condition.  I apologize for not handling this in a more sensitive manner.  Also, I should note that the company no longer includes case “comments” in their email blast to all the lawyers.  However, the company still sends out everyone’s name and the city they are from.

Washington Lawyers Seeing DUI Search Warrants for Blood Samples

Do you think you have the right to refuse a DUI breath test?  More and more, the police are obtaining search warrants for blood sample, and literally pinning people down to obtain their evidence. Every DUI lawyer is accustomed to getting the 2 a.m. call.  A client is arrested and at the jail, and wants to know whether to take the breath test. This is the standard advice that lawyers give: Take the breath test, but don’t answer any questions the officer asks.  However, in the last two years, the decision has become more complicated. Across the country, police have greater powers to take a blood sample by force.

DUI BloodIn Washington State, the case that approves of blood tests by force was Seattle v. St. John.  In that case the Washington State Supreme Court explained that just because a suspect is told (in the Implied Consent Warnings) that he can refuse a test, doesn’t mean that the police cannot request a search warrant to compel a test of the suspects blood.  Prior to this court decision, it was thought by some that a DUI suspect could refuse a breath or blood test and the only consequence would be the suspension of the driver’s license.

Although we haven’t seen it in Washington so much, across the nation, police departments are promoting “no refusal” weekends, where everyone who refuses a blood test will simply be subjected to a blood test by search warrant.   For example, my friend Clifford Swayze, who is an Austin Texas DUI lawyer, informed me about the Texas no refusal weekends” where the police will have a judge on call, all weekend, ready to issue search warrants for blood sample at all hours of the night.  Likewise in Atlanta, Georgia, two local police agencies have developed a policy whereby all suspects who refuse a test will face a request for a search warrant.  Other states, such as Montana, have changed their DUI statutes to make it clear that judges can sign warrants for blood draws.

How does a search warrant for a blood sample work?  Well the paperwork looks much like any other search warrant.  There is an affidavit that is filled out by the police that spells out the probable cause the police have to think that a person is intoxicated.  The judge then issues the warrant.  Sometimes this paperwork is presented to the judge in person.  Other times it is done telephonically.  The officer than takes the suspect to a hospital or clinic where a phlebotomist or blood tech takes the sample.  A person can be pinned down, and the sample can be taken by force if need be.  The possibility of a blood search warrant is something that every DUI lawyer should discuss with each suspect when they call for advice.

How Native Americans Could Stop an Autopsy in Washington State.

Some Native-Americans have issues with autopsies for deceased tribal members.  Although death rituals and burial practices vary from tribe to tribe, I have heard this concern raised a lot in my work as a lawyer, and in my previous work as a coroner.  A new case from Pierce County has addressed the rights of family members to stop autopsies on cultural grounds.   The case involved an orthodox Jewish man, but the same legal principals could be applied to Native Americans or other cultural groups who oppose autopsies on cultural grounds.

Factual background of Pierce County case

Here is a little background on the Pierce County case:  Dr. Brian Grobois, of New York, took a trip to Washington State, and attempted a day hike in Mount Rainier National Park on December 11th, 2011.  He died of hypothermia.  When his body was located, he was then transported to the office of Dr. Thomas Clark, the Pierce County Medical Examiner.  Dr. Grobois’ family explained that they didn’t want an invasive autopsy performed because the family is of the Orthodox Jewish faith.   When it appeared that the medical examiner was still going to proceed, the deceased’s wife hired a lawyer to seek to prohibit an autopsy.

Legal procedures involved

The lawyer Dr. Grobois’s widow filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction.  The lawyer attached a declaration by a local Washington Rabbi who explained the religious and cultural reasons why an autopsy should not be done.  The suit was filed on December 14th at around 1 p.m., and an ex parte order was signed about 90 minutes later.  The court order prohibited the autopsy until a hearing could be held the next day at 3 p.m.  The judge who signed the order was Commissioner Mark Gelman.   The case was continued until the next day, and the attorney for the medical examiner wrote a lengthy legal memorandum citing the powers of coroners and medical examiners.  On December 16th, Judge Brian Tollefson ruled against the medical examiner, and ordered the body to be returned.  No appeal was filed.

How this case might apply to Native Americans.

I ordered a copy of the court file in this case, and took a close look at it.  The plaintiff’s lawyer had a rabbi draft a declaration regarding religious practices.  The rabbi sited Deuteronomy 21:23 and 12:23, but not a lot of sources or citations to other religious texts were needed to stop the autopsy in this case.  It seems to me that other cultural groups (including Native Americans) could bring a similar case in a court in Washington State.  A plaintiff would want to track down cultural leaders to explain the issues with autopsies in as much detail as possible.  To prevent an autopsy, the plaintiff needs to make it clear that they are acting out of cultural beliefs, not just an individual views or preferences on the subject of autopsies.

The balancing test

Although it is not really clear from the record in Grobois v. Pierce County, a superior court in Washington will do a balancing test when faced with a request for an injunction.  In other words, the judge will balance why the pathologist feels he needs an autopsy versus why the family is opposed to it.  Was there suspicion of foul play?  Is the cause of death apparent without an autopsy?  Is the family member opposing the autopsy a suspect?

Death investigations in Washington.

Here is how the death investigation system works in Washington State.  If a person dies unexpectedly outside the care of a physician, the county coroner (or medical examiner) has jurisdiction to investigate the cause of death.   In metropolitan counties like Spokane, King and Pierce County, the county commissioners appoint a “medical examiner” to perform this function.  The medical examiner is a board certified forensic pathologist.  However, in mid-size counties like Stevens County, Yakima County, Grant County, etc., an elected coroner conducts death investigations.  These coronors might by retired nurses, retired police detectives etc, but they are not usually doctors.  In counties with populations under 40 thousand people, the job of coroner falls on the elected prosecutor.  In these counties (such as Ferry, Okanogan, Lincoln, etc) the elected prosecutor might attend a class or two, but more extensive formal training is not too common.  In these counties, the coroner investigates the death, but sends the bodies down to forensic pathologist for the actual autopsy.  For example, the Ferry County and Okanogan coroner contract with Dr. Gina Fino of Wenatchee  In Stevens and Lincoln counties, the bodies are sent to Dr. Sally Aiken or Dr. John Howard of Spokane.  There is a reason that it is important to know how the system works in different areas.  A party seeking an injunction needs to know who to serve, and needs to act fast.

The nature of an autopsy

While we often think of an autopsy as the cutting open of a body, the term “autopsy” simply means to examine the body.  However, in cases of unattended or suspicious deaths, usually the autopsy means a full examination.  In such an examination the brain is removed and dissected, and the internal organs are removed and weighed.  Samples are taken and viewed microscopically, and often sent for tests.  The parts are them put back together and the torso is sewn back up.  I had the opportunity to observe such an autopsy at Holly Family Hospital once in Spokane.  It is not pleasant to watch, of course, but the body is treated with respect and care.  Sometimes a forensic pathologist is able to tell the cause of death and sometimes not.   Sometimes an autopsy yields surprising results.  On occasion, a person who takes his or her own life will be found to have had a brain tumor that was causing the depression.  This is the type of thing that families like to know.  Many of the unattended deaths in this country are due to strokes or heart attacks.  It is possible to do a limited autopsy to address the cultural concerns or traditions of groups such a Native Americans or Orthodox Jews.  For example, Judge Tollefson did allow the Pierce County Medical Examiner to do an x-ray of Mr. Grobois.   I can recall that years ago the Spokane County Coronor would authorize such limited autopsies for Native Americans.

To obtain an injunction a person needs to find an attorney that can work fast.  When I have head to seek an injunction in the past, it usually means working all day and night to prepare the legal paperwork, and sometimes contacting a judge after hours.

Top 10 Marijuana Lawyer Bloggers (or so says this Spokane attorney)

Marijuana laws in the U.S. are so complex, so contradictory, at at some times so baffling, that lawyers love to write about the subject.  Since I started my blog 3 years ago, the subject of marijuana laws has been a frequent topic.  We have discussed the “green tongue” phenomenon, the science of “marijuana dui“, the taxationwhat not to say when you are stopped, why it sucks to go to court for marijuana possession, what to do if you are caught at the border with marijuana, and attempts to reform the laws, and I-502.  Geesh, thats kind of a lot.  But I am not the only one.  Here is a list of 10 of the best marijuana law-bloggers in the 50 states.  They have great stuff, so go check out their sites.  (They are in no particular order – they are all good.)

1.   New Jersey Marijuana Blog.  Jef Henninger takes on New Jersey marijuana laws and explains the fight to more narrowly construe the state’s school zone enhancements, and the battle to prohibit “expert” witnesses from telling the jury that their “expert” opinion is that the defendant is guilty.

okanogan marijuana lawyer

Dozens of law bloggers write on the subject of marijuana - here are some of the best.

2.  Rose Law Group Blog. The staff at Rose Law Group attempts to make sense of the byzantine legal structure of medical marijuana in Arizona while the state wrangles with threats from the federal government.

3.   L.A.’s Dopest Attorney.  Fresh out of Harvard, lawyer Allison Margolin shared her views on the drug war, pushy DA’s, and various celebrities.  We are still waiting for her to update her blog though.

4.  Rose Law Texas.  Jeremy Rosenthal offers thoughtful, in depth, legal explanations on how marijuana laws work in Texas.  When several people are in a car, and marijuana is on the floor, it is always a gray area as to who “possesses” it, and Jeremy has a good post on that subject.

5.   Philadelphia Criminal Law Blog.  Attorney Brian Zeiger has a nice collection of posts on marijuana in a question-and-answer format, including the question all lawyers get about the defendant who skipped town on a pot charge, and then needs advice on what to do.

6.   Paul C. Youngs Blog.  Paul has blogged on the efforts by the IRS to remove any business expenses as tax deductible.  Additionally, he has commented on  the fairly liberal marijuana policies of Ann Arbor Michigan compared to the rest of the state.  Sound like Seattle anyone?

7.   Sammis Law Blog.  The Sammis law firm covers the efforts toward decriminalization of medical marijuana in Florida.  A 3/5th margin of the legislature is required to get the the measure on the ballot.  Polls show broad support for medical marijuana, and Florida might be joining the 17 other states in the US that recognize it.

8.   The Marijuana Lawyer Blog.   This blog is written by the Law Office of Glew and Kim of California.  They have written lately of the efforts by state governors to have the DEA re-classify marijuana from being a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, thus permitting the drug for medicinal purposes.

9.   Criminal Attorney St Petersburg Blog. Attorney Melinda Morris takes a look at criminal issues in Florida including a trend among teens in the Tampa Bay area to adorn themselves with the hose of a water pipe in the form of a bracelet.

10.  Ambrose Law Group Blog. Attorneys from this law firm tackle the subject of canine “sniff” searches, the disturbing trends on marijuana arrests, and the loss of housing subsidies by medical cannabis patients.

What are your favorite blogs?  Let me know what I have missed, and maybe I will include them in 2013.





Schapelle Corby’s Hell in Indonesia (And We Thought the Perugians Treated Amanda Knox Badly)

Schapelle Corby is a 34-year-old Australian woman who was convicted of smuggling marijuana into Bali in 2004.  The Indonesian police claim to have found the drugs in a bag she and her friends had with them that contained a boogie board.   Schapelle Corby claimed to have no knowledge of the drug’s presence.


She has maintained her innocence, and her trial was plagued by irregularities.  The Indonesian police ordered the destruction of the physical evidence in the case, and destroyed the CCTV video of her arrest and questioning.  There was no comparison of the bag’s check-in weight at the Brisbane airport compared to the weight of the bag upon arrival.   The bag was not tested for fingerprints. Corby was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  (In comparison, Abu Bakar Bashir (convicted of conspiring to kill 200 people in the Bali night club bombing) received only a couple years).  Corby has exhausted all her appeal rights in the Indonesian justice system, but she is still petitioning for clemency.  Much like the Amanda Knox trial captured the attention of the American public, Schappelle Corby caused many Australians to wonder how fairly she was treated.

But unlike the happy ending that Knox received, the abuse of Schapelle Corby continues.  Check out the latest nonsense that Corby had to put up. (See story)  The prison apparently has some sort of Christmas Mass for the inmates every year, where they drag the inmates out in front of the media, and announce any remissions (or slight reductions in the sentence due to good behavior).  When Corby saw all the media, she asked to be brought back to her cell.  Apparently, she did not want to be a part of this charade of the warden’s showy beneficence.  This is what the warden said to the press: “This will be a special point against her [getting future sentence cuts] and I will report it to the Australian Consulate. … She has failed to meet all the requirements for a remission. … She is a naughty child and unappreciative of Kerobokan Penitentiary.”  What a nut.

I don’t think we have heard the last of this case.  There seems to be some increased attention to her case, and according to @freeschapelle on twitter, there is a new documentary coming out about her case.

What do you think of this case?  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.



Ignition Interlock in Washington – It’s Here to Stay

The ignition interlock in Washington is here to stay.  Once, the ignition interlock was required only for DUI repeat offenders.  Now the devices are sometimes even required for offenses like negligent driving.

Image of Ignition Interlock Device
Think of the ignition interlock as a tech gadget.

The Department of Licensing often requires the instrument as a condition of license re-instatement after a DUI conviction.  Many experts predict that soon the ignition interlock device will be required in all new vehicles, alongside seatbelts and airbags. If you are required to use one, think of it like it is a new tech gadget, and you are a new adapter.  If they sold them at the Apple Store, there would be a line around the block.

There are many advantages to the new technology.  A driver with an alcohol-related license suspension can often legally drive with an Ignition Interlock License.  Such a license is granted to suspended drivers once they have a device installed.  The devices do sometimes malfunction, so it is important to find a reputable installer of an ignition interlock.  An installation service can also assist you in getting the paperwork needed to the DOL.

My clients who appreciate the devices the most are the ones who live in rural areas, and who don’t have the option of taking a bus to work.  Avoiding the ignition interlock requirement and driving while suspended is not really an option.  The penalties for such an offense are severe and also lead to probation violations.  Suspended driving can also lead to the revocation of a deferred prosecution.  The Ignition Interlock License is really a win-win, because community safety is protected but defendants are still allowed to drive to work and keep making a living.

Hit and Run in Washington – A Criminal Lawyer’s Perspective

Hit and Run laws in Washington are hard even for lawyers to understand.  Lately, I have had the opportunity to defend many hit and run cases, both in the Spokane area and elsewhere.  The laws are complex, and there is a lot of confusion about the laws on this subject so I figured it might make a good blog post.

Different Levels of Hit and Run

Like many crimes in Washington State, Hit and Run has different levels. But unlike most other crimes (assault, for example) the levels of hit and run are not broken up into 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th degree.  Rather, Hit and Run is broken into the four different levels:

Hit and Run – Unattended

Hit and Run – Unattended is the lowest level of Hit and Run, and is a misdemeanor under Washington law.Image of Hit and Run  The crime occurs when a driver collides with an “unattended” parked car or other property of value on the side of the road, and then leaves without notify the owner or leaving a note.

Hit and Run – Attended

Hit and Run -Attended is committed when a driver strikes another vehicle that is occupied, and flees the scene.  This offense is a gross misdemeanor. The law imposes a duty on the driver to stop and provide his or her name and address, and his or her insurance information.

Hit and Run – Injury

Hit and Run – Injury applies when a driver strikes another vehicle and injures an occupant of that vehicle and flees the scene.  This offense is a class C felony. The law imposes a duty on the driver to render assistance to the injured party, including making arrangements for transportation to the hospital.  This last requirement doesn’t apply in circumstances when the driver himself is unable to do so due to his or her own injuries.

Hit and Run – Fatality

Hit and Run – Injury applies when a driver strikes another vehicle, injures an occupant of that vehicle, and flees the scene.  This offense is a class C felony. A Hit and Run involving any occupied vehicle will result in a 1 year license suspension.

Occasionally, a driver or defendant will explain to the police that he or she was not aware that they collided into another vehicle.  This does not arise too often, and is obviously more plausible when the damage to the vehicles is minimal and in circumstances, perhaps, where the driver is elderly or distracted.  Usually Hit and Run charges are proven by eyewitness testimony, or by a forensic analysis of paint scrapes.  Under Locard’s theory of “transfer and exchange” a close examination of each vehicle would leave trace evidence on the other in the form of paint scrapes or metal scrapings.  The height of the markings on each vehicle would also be considered.  In practice, busy police departments don’t always closely examine the damage done.  Photographs are usually taken, and it is common for paint chips to be collected but not immediately tested.

A conviction for Hit and Run on a person’s criminal record sometimes creates confusion.  When employers are doing a background check, they don’t often know what to make of a Hit and Run charge, and they are apt to assume that the conviction involves the most serious type.  Background checks often yield inaccurate results, and even FBI or Washington State criminal records are spotty or incomplete.  It is not uncommon for a criminal record to refer to a “Hit and Run” conviction without spelling out the level, type, or nature of the offense.  Criminal defense lawyers typically file public records requests for the police reports that underlie the offense for more information.

Hit and Run charges can stand on their own, or they can be coupled with other offenses such as DUI, Negligent Driving, Reckless Driving, or even Vehicular Homicide.  When a person flees the scene of an accident, it is sometimes just a panic reaction, but sometimes a person makes a more deliberate decision to leave because they have no insurance, are intoxicated, or have pre-existing warrants for their arrest.


For more information on Hit and Run, and the penalties, visit our website.

Eyes in the Sky: The Impact of Predator Drones on Your Privacy

Back on June 3, 2010, I warned about the possible (mis)uses of inexpensive drone technology and how such gadgets might eventually be harnessed for civilian law enforcement purposes, possibly spying on a pot dealer’s back yard. Turns out I was right. Well, not about the pot, at least not yet.

A scary report in the Los Angeles Times told of how local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone to apprehend three men; the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator. The incident occurred when the suspects refused to turn over several cows that had wandered on to their property. Police showed up, the suspects brandished some shotguns and a pretty tense standoff ensued. marijuana droneThe police left and got themselves a warrant and then called in a Predator drone to fly over the suspect’s land, hovering for four hours, transmitting video and thermal imaging all the while. The next day, police called the drone back for more spying and finally made their move when the drone determined the men were unarmed.

The Predator drones used in this incident are based at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, located in Emerado, North Dakota, and are owned and operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Though the FBI, DEA and a plethora of other federal agencies have used Predator drones on U.S. soil for years for surveillance purposes, this is the first reported incident where local police forces have made use of a Predator drone to watch and then apprehend suspects.

The Los Angeles Times quotes a retired U.S. General who acknowledges that drones are being used “in many areas around the country, not only for federal operators, but also for state and local law enforcement.” The Customs and Border Protection agency responsible for the apprehension in the North Dakota incident claim they have a legal authorization to use the drones in such a way. Officials insist that they indicated in their budget requests to Congress that one purpose of purchasing the Predators was for “interior law enforcement support.”

Jane Harman – former Chair of the House Homeland Security Sub-Committee – insists that “no one ever discussed using Predators to help local police serve warrants or do other basic work.” The argument from Customs is that the drones can be used on U.S. soil for law enforcement purposes not because of a new law or regulation, nor because of any Congressional mandate or Executive Order, simply because they inserted the phrase “interior law enforcement support” into their purchase order.

This “interior law enforcement support” hasn’t been limited to North Dakota. A recent article out of Houston discussed the local law enforcement excitement following their acquisition of several drones: “It’s an exciting piece of equipment for us,” Chief Deputy of Montgomery County Sherriff’s Office said. The Sherriff’s Office recently used $300,000 from a federal homeland security grant to purchase a ShadowHawk drone which they hope to take to the air in the coming months. “We envision a lot of its uses primarily in the realm of public safety – looking at recovery of lost individuals and being able to utilize it for fire issues.” However, the police aren’t willing to say the drones might not do more in the future. McDaniel said that one day they may decide to equip the drones to carry nonlethal weapons such as Tasers or a bean-bag gun.

Kirsten Bokenkamp, spokeswoman for the Houston-based American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, warned of the danger the drones pose. She sensibly pointed out that there are not enough safeguards currently in place to protect citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. The complaint has so far fallen on deaf ears.

The manufacturers of these unmanned aircraft aren’t stopping to worry about such issues; instead they’re pushing forward and aggressively courting local law enforcement. In their 2011 Annual Report, AeroVironment, Inc. (AV), the nation’s leading manufacturer of small drones, hammers home the message that future growth lies in non-military applications of their product:

As we explore opportunities to develop new markets for our small UAS, such as border surveillance, law enforcement, first response and infrastructure monitoring, we expect further growth through the introduction of UAS technology to non-military applications once rules are established for their safe and effective operation in each country’s national airspace.

The company manufactures drones so small they can be transported in the trunk of a car and launched within minutes. A single police officer could deploy and monitor such a drone. These small drones could help usher in an “Era of Surveillance,” cheap and easy access to drones capable of hovering without detection for far longer than police helicopters.

The drones are vastly different and more powerful than standard police helicopters, the current method of choice for police surveillance from above. A great example is one new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan – the Gorgon Stare, named after the Greek creature of legend whose unblinking eyes turned those who looked at it to stone. According to the Washington Post, it’s “able to scan an area the size of a small town” and is able to “use artificial intelligence [to] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity.” One proud U.S. General went on to declare that the “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” No police helicopter that I’ve ever run across has such capabilities and the prospect of the Gorgon Stare making its way to America should give everyone cause for concern.

Beyond such domestic law enforcement missions, the drones are being used everywhere, silent eyes in the sky. According to a recent report, a group dedicated to the abolition of whale hunting, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, used an unmanned aircraft to follow suspected Japanese whalers. Drones are everywhere and apparently have unlimited potential uses. Monitoring by law enforcement, border patrol, whale watching, what’s next? Given new technology whole cities can be kept under surveillance by one tiny drone. Where does this end? Likely with your civil liberties being violated. It’s only a matter of time before a civilian law enforcement agency realizes that the contraptions would be great for checking up on marijuana growing operations. Launch a Predator and have it spend hours noiselessly circling farms, searching for telltale signs of pot production. Police can watch the stream from the comfort of their desk and swoop in after the drone has done the leg work.

The increasing use of drones for an ever-growing list of activities on U.S. soil is troubling and potentially dangerous. This is the definition of a slippery slope and little exists to stop the creep of this surveillance into every facet of law enforcement. Small marijuana growers will have to fear a silent watchman in the sky. Jane Harman, a military hawk by any definition, told the Los Angeles Times that she’s worried, saying “There is no question that this could become something that people will regret.” The use of drones by civilian law enforcement is important and the issue warrants some real attention by legislators and the public alike.

What do you think about this issue?  How long before these drones are out looking for local marijuana gardens?   As the wars wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, will the defense contractors focus more on marketing these drones to your local police department?  Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Initiative I-502 to Legalize Marijuana, by New Approach Washington

When Proposition 19 was rejected by the voters of California in 2010, I figured that would pretty much mean the end of any legalization initiatives in Washington.  However, a group called New Approach Washington was created, and they are now gathering signatures for a legalization initiative for the November ballot in 2012.  The group is challenging the assumption that California is the only testing ground for such proposals.  How can this possibly pass in Washington?  The groups campaign director, attorney Alison Holcomb pretty much explained her thinking recently at Hempfest in Seattle.  (See video below) She explains that there is polling data that supports the idea that such an initiative could win.  “We are in this amazing moment of opportunity and also precariousness – there is no state (other than Washington) in the country that has a 55% …percent majority support for legalizing marijuana.”  The problem that happened in California, Holcomb explains, is that right before the election, voters started to get scared by concerns like “stoned drivers”, and that moderate voters like centrist democrats, independents, and college-educated women, got nervous and abandoned their support.  Holcomb explains:  “With I-502 we spent a lot of time figuring out the most conservative, safe, secure sounding, marijuana legalization initiative that we can draft, and that will get us closest to what our public opinion data tells us people will hang on to and pass.”  Her vision is that once we get such an initiative passed, that voters nationwide will “see that the sky doesn’t fall” and it will snowball to broader legalization and reforms throughout the U.S.   Alison Holcomb explained:

We have to be as disciplined as possible, and pulling together, for example, the sponsers that signed on to it.  Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes, former US Attorney John McKay, Rick Steeves, two medical doctors, two former Washington state bar presidents, a Washington state legislator.  We need all the main stream messengers possible, because I think a legalization initiative  that looks like it is coming from the choir, that looks like it is coming from the usual suspects, has a much harder row to hoe then one that is coming from a former US attorney, for example.

Is it ironic that she explains the need to gather “mainstream messengers” when she is speaking at Hempfest?  I guess a little.  I did note that you can hear the psychedelic rock of the festival playing in the background as she speaks.

I-502 has some detractors.  Some question the proposed law’s provision that drivers (even medical patients) cannot driver a motor vehicle with a THC level over 5 nanograms per milliliter in their blood.  Others question why drivers under 21 would be defined as committing DUI if they have THC in their system in any amount over .000.  One such critic is Edward Agazarm, who started a Facebook page entitled Patients Against I-502.  He sent a press release out last week excoriating the sponsors of I-502.”  See article.  But Alison Holcomb fired back in the comment section of that article accusing Edward Agazarm of being disingenuous in his criticisms of I-502.  Agazarm is a professional signature-gatherer, and president of Citizen Solutions, Inc.   Holcomb explained that Agazarm called her and pitched his company (to collect signatures) after she held a press conference in June.  Holcomb writes: “When I told him we had already contracted with PCI Consultants, Inc., he insulted them and hung up on me. Now, Eddie’s spamming people with emails equating I-502 to rape.”  Agazarm isn’t the only critic.  Steve Elliot, a writer for also is very critical of the proposed law.

I guess the million-dollar question is whether the initiative will pass.  Can New Approach Washington gather enough moderate voters to off-set the critics?  We will have to see.

One of my disappointments in observing the marijuana reform movement over the last 10 years is how egos and dollar signs seem to damage any real chance of reform.  If I had the energy to collect 100,000 signatures, I would first seek a simple initiative removing the mandatory 24-hour jail time for all marijuana.  I blogged about this here last year. As a practicing criminal defense lawyer, I do have concerns about I-502.  I do worry that a driver under 21 could be convicted for DUI even for trace amounts of marijuana in his or her system.  I also don’t believe that all drivers would necessarily be impaired at .05 nanograms per milliliter, as I addressed here.   I do believe that the law would likely contribute to patient harassment, and an increase in unwarranted marijuana DUI charges.  The “probable cause” that an officer would have to establish an arrest for marijuana DUI is often based on subjective and spurious observations, such as the “green tongue” phenomenon.  I am already seeing an increase in marijuana DUI charges in my practice.  The problem with enforcement with these new laws isn’t going to be in King County; the problem will be greatest in the hick towns of eastern Washington (where I live and practice law).  In these towns the judges are often hostile to even medical marijuana, and the jury pools are conservative.  The prosecutors are less susceptible to public pressure and bad publicity, and  the defense lawyers often lack the specialized training and resources to defend such charges.

What do you think?  Will you be signing the petition for I-502?  Is it worth the restrictions on driving to get a marijuana reform law passed?  Does I-502 ask for too much of a sacrifice from medical cannabis patients?  Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.


Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking:
Law Office of Steve Graham
1312 North Monroe Street, #140
Spokane, WA 99201
(509) 252-9167
Blogs I Read