Part 8: “Getting Away With…Murder?”
[link to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7]
The time between my arrest and the dismissal of charges is kind of a fog. My plate was full at the time, with triple duties of bread-winner, father of two, and care-provider for Barbara, my ailing wife. Somehow, I hooked up with Michael Walz, who agreed to represent me pro-bono before the Justice of the Peace. At the time, felony charges came through the Justice of the Peace, who would routinely rubber-stamp them, sending the cases to Superior court for trial/plea-bargaining. Walz would argue for dismissal, however, and a date for a hearing was set.
Walz and I disagreed on how to argue the case. I urged him to use the license as grounds for dismissal; Walz wanted to argue double-jeopardy, primarily because precedent had been set in Nebraska. Michael could probably do a better job justifying his approach. In any event, he was doing it for free, so I didn’t have much leverage. He did the lawyerly things, writing the dismissal motion and preparing oral arguments.
The Justice of the Peace in the neighborhood justice court was named Barclay. Pronounced the same as Barkley, famous forward for the Phoenix Suns at that time. His first name wasn’t Charles, but it was still fun to bat his name about, “Barclay may…” this or “Barclay could…” that, as if we were talking about Sir Charles on the basketball court.
The day of reckoning finally came. Walz, myself, Barbara, Bill Green, and a half-dozen supporters waited anxiously in the court room. The judge, Walz and the prosecuting attorney agreed to open an express-lane. Barclay would hear a litany of minor cases–traffic citations and such–that could be quickly resolved. This case would take longer. Predictably, we waited.
Finally, Barclay’s last case came up. Michael made his double-jeopardy argument. The prosecutor’s argument was that $10/oz did not constitute punishment. It was just a tax. The $100/oz in the Nebraska case did constitute punishment, because it was so onerous. But $10? That’s nothing…that was the gist of the state’s case. Walz countered that the intent of the law was punitive; Arizona had jumped on the punish-by-taxing bandwagon in the 1980s, and could not reverse the intent of the tax simply because a citizen had paid it.
The issue of law was side-stepped altogether. The arguments made by both sides were a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo; very tiresome to me. Everything orbited around the court’s definition and interpretation of “double jeopardy.” The law doesn’t matter in a court of law. This is a legal subtlety, lost on the general public. The only thing that matters in a court of law is what higher courts have ruled on the law. In the whole procedure, nothing was said about the license. It was never brought up that ARS 13-3401, the very statute I was charged with violating, defines “licensed” as authorized by state. Knowing the law is not enough. To stay within the law, you must know what the courts have ruled on the law. No court rulings had been made with regard to the license, ergo, the license was not a legal defense!
Nonetheless, Judge Barclay did the right thing, although he agonized over it. He was clearly not about to do anything wild or rash. But by his questions, you could tell he thought the defense had raised a valid issue, which warranted due consideration. The only specific I remember was “horns of a dilemma.” The department of revenue, by selling the tax-stamps, had created the “horns of a dilemma” for the courts, or something to that effect. Almost apologizing to the prosecutor, he finally announced his decision.
Hollywood it was not. There was no pounding of the gavel, nor dramatic, “Case dismissed!” It was anticlimactic to the extreme. Barclay’s wording was so convoluted and steeped in legalese, I had to double check with Walz to make sure I had understood him correctly. I had. The two felony charges were dropped. We were elated. Outside the justice court, we were walking on air.
Until further notice, pot was now legal in Arizona!
We stood around in the parking lot for quite a while, talking up what we should do with the decision in hand. After some discussion, we decided to keep it low-profile. Bill would announce it at the next meeting, that people could now buy dealer’s licenses from the state–and tax stamps–and be removed from legal jeopardy! But no press releases. We would try to build some momentum, inertia, before going public with it. Bill was probably the second person to buy a license, but many would follow. We wanted to be able to say to the press, “Look…this is working. People are buying the license; paying the tax; the state’s making money off it. There is no crime or violence associated with it. It’s all good.” That was the plan. Put together proof that legal marijuana works…before announcing it!
I drove home with Barbara. By this time, her ability to carry on a conversation was quite limited. We didn’t talk about the dismissal, or what it meant. We might not have talked about anything at all, but at one point she piped up, “Turn on the radio.” So I did.
“In a dramatic scene in Los Angeles today, the jury in the O. J. Simpson case acquitted Mr. Simpson of both murder charges. The jury announced, ’We find Mr. Simpson, a human being, not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown.’”
Those extra words, “a human being,” struck me as odd to nth degree. What was the jury implying? That a shark or a grisly bear might be put on trial for murder? They wanted to make clear this was not the case? That the accused was human, not animal? Didn’t we already know that?
Whatever the jury meant, once in a while there’s a planetary alignment. The Moon, Venus and Jupiter converge in the morning or evening sky, and if you happen to be outside looking up, you cannot help but notice the sight, and you might even pause for a moment to take it in. But if Neptune or Pluto are in the same part of the sky, nobody notices. They are invisible. Such was that day. Eyes in America were locked on the infamous courtroom in Los Angeles, as the Trial/media-circus of the Century reached its culmination. O.J. Simpson, one of the most famous NFL running backs of the 20th century, slipped through two charges of murder, a free man.
Meanwhile, in a nondescript Justice Court in Phoenix, Arizona, P.B. Wilson, an unknown engineer, walked away from two felony counts of possession of dangerous drugs. Me an’ O.J. fought the law…and won! My victory was decidedly eclipsed by the spectacle in LA, both in media coverage and cost. Reportedly, it set back O.J. about $6 million in lawyers fees; it took yours-truly only $100 for the license and $17.50 in tax. Our “crimes” were a little different…but we both walked away the same day.
As fate would have it, however, neither one of us stayed out of reach of the long arm of the law.
–Peter Wilson was State Director of Arizona NORML during the turbulent 1990s.