Pubdate: Sat, 07 May 2011
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2011 The Press Democrat
Author: Glenda Anderson
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


Policy Reducing Defendants' Charges If They Make Payment Both Lauded, 
Called Extortion

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has been busy since 
taking office in January, dealing with campaign promises and 
implementing new practices that are raising funds and eyebrows.

One of his most novel and controversial moves has been to allow 
people charged with felony marijuana cultivation to plead guilty to 
misdemeanor possession if they agree to pay a $50-per-plant 
eradication fee to law enforcement agencies. The defendants also are 
placed on probation for two years and sentenced to 100 to 200 hours 
of community service, depending on the number of plants they were growing.

The program is being hailed as progress by some and reviled as an 
extortion by others.

"There are a lot of mixed feelings," said Jim Hill, a member of the 
Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board. He believes the new 
program is a good compromise.

So far, at least 31 people - all involved in cases that have lagged 
from years prior - have taken the deal and paid the Mendocino County 
Sheriff's Office more than $117,000.

If those defendants later want to grow medical marijuana, they will 
be required to buy medical marijuana zip ties from the Sheriff's 
Office at $50 per plant. The ties - optional for everyone else - 
prove the plants are certified for medical use.

It's a boon to the cash-strapped Sheriff's Office, which increasingly 
is relying on drug-related funds to balance its budget. It's hoping 
to raise more than $500,000 next year through a medical marijuana 
permitting program. This year it used about $450,000 in drug-related 
asset forfeiture funds to pay for overtime.

Those eligible for Eyster's new plea deals generally are first-time 
offenders and people who may have been planning to become legal by 
obtaining medical marijuana credentials, Eyster said. Profiteers and 
trespass growers are not eligible, he said.

The agreements not only generate income for law enforcement, they 
save the District Attorney's Office time and money, he said. They 
also save the defendants legal fees, Eyster said.

"It's a win-win program," he said.

Marijuana advocates and their defenders largely welcome the program 
as progress, but it also has raised concerns.

"I think it's commendable" that the charges are being reduced to 
misdemeanors, said Ukiah marijuana defense attorney Bob Boyd. But 
some of his clients see it as a payoff.

"People are saying 'I have to pay my extortion fee,' " he said. 
Another concern is that only people with enough money to pay can 
benefit, which seems contrary to the concept of equal justice, he said.

"It's a very odd and slippery slope," Boyd said.

The program is based on a little-known law that allows law 
enforcement agencies to recover the costs of marijuana eradication. 
But it may soon become more commonly used as other cash-strapped 
agencies search for new revenue sources.

"Other counties are asking me 'how did you get this going?' " Eyster said.

Eyster's approach is consistent with his promise to streamline 
marijuana prosecutions and halt what he said was the overcharging of 
pot crimes. He's also spearheading state legislation that would allow 
district attorneys to decide whether cultivation cases should be 
charged as misdemeanors or felonies. Currently, cultivation is a felony.
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