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Making A Federal Case Out Of Marijuana

Michael Komorn


Our client, a medical marijuana patient registered with the State of Michigan, was out for a boat ride and some fishing on his friend’s boat. What started out as a glorious day with intentions of sun and fishing on the Detroit river later turned into federal charges of possession of marijuana (21 USC 844, 21 USC 844a) when a Border Patrol agent pulled up to them and wanted to search their vessel.


Related: Michigan law regarding marijuana manufacture, delivery, and possession


The federal border patrol agent required that the two passengers, my client and his friend, open all the containers in the immediate area, to which they complied.


After the agent found no contraband, he demanded that the occupants of the boat hand over the marijuana because, according to the agent, it smelled like marijuana on the boat. Additionally, the agent said that if someone did not give him the marihuana, he was going to call the K9 unit.


What does the driver of a car or boat say in response to a law enforcement officer demanding that the occupants of the vehicle hand over the marijuana, or else?


For a vehicle, we know that the traffic stop can't or shouldn't take last for any longer that it takes to execute the traffic stop, identify and inform the driver of the violation, and issue a ticket, if appropriate. A traffic stop is not an opportunity to gather evidence of probable cause of the vehicle to search. That basic threat, calling the dogs, would be unconstitutional. That is to say, the delay in calling the dogs to get probable cause would be a delay beyond the scope of the lawful police interaction. The delay to call the dogs is a delay for the purpose of getting probable cause to search the vehicle.


Most times this decision on how to respond should be determined on a case-by-case factual basis. In other words, depending upon what is within the vehicle, the driver may or may not comply with the request of the officer. The rule of thumb, however, is to never consent to a search, ever. Equally important is the rule that you should never talk to the police or answer questions. Specifically, in these traffic encounters, or even vessel encounters, the investigated driver is not under arrest. The encounter is an interaction called an investigation, and anything that is said during this encounter will be used against you.


Ultimately, our client handed over the marijuana cigarettes and his patient card. As my client was reminded by the Border Patrol Agent, there is no medical marihuana on federal jurisdiction. Or said another way, it was the intent of this agent to make a federal case out of it.


After being retained by our client, and after a few pretrial conferences and conferences with the Assistant United States Attorney, we learned that it was also the intent of the United States Government to make a federal case of it.


Federal jurisdiction, as mentioned above, is a very different venue to litigate a marihuana case, even if it’s just for a joint or two. The liabilities for punishment are much greater, and in certain situations get worse, the more the accused litigates the case. That is to say, any benefits of resolving the case with a plea bargain are minimized should you force the government to litigate the case.


It is under these circumstances that we needed to make our decisions on how to proceed. As we got closer to the day of trial, the Government offered a number of different plea offers and options to resolve the case. Unfortunately, none of them contemplated the medical use of marihuana while being supervised on probation. Similar to many of the State Courts throughout Michigan, the likelihood of any probation supervision of any kind would preclude the medical use of marihuana.


Not directly pertinent to this case either factually or due to our federal court venue, the only Michigan case law that addresses the issue is a recent case in the Court of Appeals, People v Magyari, the defendant argued that, pursuant to the MMMA, the court could not prohibit his medical marijuana use during probation because he possessed a patient card, but the court’s opinion characterized the defendant’s use of marijuana as non-medical, and did not apply their reasons for upholding the lower court decision the appeal to all cardholders.


A probation condition disallowing his medical use of marijuana was not acceptable to my client, and besides, who would want to plead guilty to something that the state government has authorized you to possess, let alone be on probation for the same behavior?

So as often is the case, the choices that presented themselves compelled us to reject the offers to plead guilty and instead litigate the case.


Our response to the offer to plead guilty was to file a “Motion to Dismiss Based Upon Justice Spending Funds to Prevent Implementation of Michigan Marijuana Laws.”


I think it is more than ironic that as we put together the motion challenging the federal government’s authority and jurisdiction to prosecute the matter, the issue of States’ Rights was in the forefront in a national debate.


As outlined in the motion, the legal authority prohibiting the jurisdiction of the government in our matter was vitiated by the Cole memorandum – both of them. Additionally, the Rhorabacher-Farr amendment was more than clear in its intent to preclude federal agents employed by the DOJ, including the DEA, from investigating or prosecuting medical marihuana patients that are in compliance with state law. If there was ever a case with the perfect facts to prevail upon it would be this case, and the mere two marijuana cigarettes. In contrast, the circumstances of the case cited, US v McIntosh, dealt with dispensaries and commercial marihuana sales. Our case was as authentic patient activity as one could find.


After filing the motion to dismiss, and appearing for the motion hearing, we learned that the Government had decided to dismiss the case. The AUSA indicated to me that he had "no desire to go to the mat with me on this case" and he was "not going to make bad case law with this case." Or said another way, he knew that he was going to lose, and instead of dealing with that result which would be precedent and impact the entire Sixth Circuit Trial Court, he thought it best to dismiss the case, and let us go on our way.


The moral of this story is that when they make a federal case out of it, you should do the same.

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