News Roundup

A bill to “recriminalize” the possession of certain dangerous drugs is moving forward in Oregon. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize the possession of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl when voters approved of a 2020 ballot initiative, with 58% in favor. If Governor Tina Kotek signs the new legislation (she states she will), possession of these drugs will again be classified as a misdemeanor. The new law would provide for a range of responses, including treatment alternatives to incarceration, diversionary options such as conditional discharges, and up to 180 days in jail. Proponents argue that the surge in fentanyl overdoses requires that penalties be reinstated, while others argue that decriminalization was not the cause of increased fentanyl use.

Read on for more criminal law news.

Police officers found liable in large Colorado judgment. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, there was renewed interest in the doctrine of qualified immunity. Many believed it had become too difficult to hold officers accountable in federal court. In order to prevail, a plaintiff has to demonstrate the officer’s conduct violated “clearly established law,” a high bar. In late 2020, Colorado became the first state to give individuals the right to sue police officers in state court for violations of the state constitution. This week, a 78-year-old woman named Ruby Johnson became the first plaintiff to prevail under this new law, obtaining a 3.76 million dollar judgment against two Denver police officers.

The case involved the wrongful search of Ms. Johnson’s home of 43 years. Officers had obtained a search warrant based on information from the “Find My” app of a stolen phone, but the app is not intended to be used for precise location data. The officers came up empty in their attempt to find guns and cash from a stolen truck; however, in searching the retired postal worker’s home, a SWAT team took a battering ram to the garage, broke ceiling tiles, and snapped the head off a doll designed to look like Ms. Johnson.

The jury awarded her 1.26 million dollars in compensatory damages and 2.5 million in punitive damages. It appears that the city of Denver will be on the hook for the judgment, while the two officers are liable for up to $25,000 if the city separately proves they acted in bad faith.

Ferguson settlement. Meanwhile, the city of Ferguson, Missouri, has reached a class-action settlement with ArchCity Defenders, agreeing to pay 4.5 million dollars to more than 15,000 people who were jailed for failure to pay fines, fees, and various court costs. The settlement comes nearly ten years after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, widespread protests, and a U.S. DOJ investigation. The DOJ found that in 2013, Ferguson’s municipal court issued 9,000 warrants leading to potential arrest and incarceration in “cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations.”

Father of school shooter in Michigan now on trial. Last month, Jennifer Crumbley became the first parent in the United States to be held criminally responsible for the mass shooting carried out by her child. This week, her husband’s trial began in Michigan. A key issue at the first trial was whether the parents should have known a tragedy might occur after their son made drawings and journal entries depicting violent scenes and asking for help.

At her trial, Ms. Crumbley testified that Mr. Crumbley was more familiar with guns and that he was responsible for storage of the gun used in the shooting. The gun was a Christmas present to their son. In the wake of the tragedy, state lawmakers passed legislation requiring that guns be kept locked up and unloaded when stored near children.

Senators have questions about North Carolina “marijuana superstore.” In anticipation of the opening of a large marijuana dispensary on Cherokee land, U.S. Senators Ted Budd and Thom Tillis of North Carolina are posing difficult questions to law enforcement officials. The enterprise will include the cultivation, production, and selling of marijuana to adults, with a grow operation located six miles from the store. Citing an array of concerns ranging from safety assessments to consistency of enforcement, the senators penned a letter with nearly twenty questions addressed to federal, state, and local law enforcement leaders. My colleague, Shea Denning, blogged about criminal jurisdiction on the Qualla Boundary, or Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, here. The dispensary is scheduled to open next month, on April 20.

Climate crime. A California man appears to be the first to be charged with smuggling greenhouse gases into the U.S. He allegedly attempted to sell the gases online after driving across the U.S.-Mexico border with the chemicals concealed under a tarp and tools. The federal government has been attempting to curb the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a refrigerant, through a variety of means, including making it a crime to import them without prior authorization from the EPA.

Plant poachers. Closer to home, two individuals were charged with felonies after authorities found almost 600 Venus flytraps in their backpacks. The coveted carnivores, native only to the Carolinas, were taken from a nature conservancy in Brunswick County. As they bloom at this time of year, they were easier to find.

Happy spring and see you next week.