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Jury Nullification In Action: Montana Jury Pool Refuses To Convict For Marijuana Possession

An interesting legal tale from Billings, Montana:

A funny thing happened on the way to a trial in Missoula County District Court last week.

Jurors – well, potential jurors – staged a revolt.

They took the law into their own hands, as it were, and made it clear they weren’t about to convict anybody for having a couple of buds of marijuana. Never mind that the defendant in question also faced a felony charge of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs.

The tiny amount of marijuana police found while searching Touray Cornell’s home on April 23 became a huge issue for some members of the jury panel.

No, they said, one after the other. No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce.

In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul.

District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

“I thought, ‘Geez, I don’t know if we can seat a jury,’ ” said Deschamps, who called a recess.

And he didn’t.

During the recess, Paul and defense attorney Martin Elison worked out a plea agreement. That was on Thursday.

On Friday, Cornell entered an Alford plea, in which he didn’t admit guilt. He briefly held his infant daughter in his manacled hands, and walked smiling out of the courtroom.

“Public opinion, as revealed by the reaction of a substantial portion of the members of the jury called to try the charges on Dec. 16, 2010, is not supportive of the state’s marijuana law and appeared to prevent any conviction from being obtained simply because an unbiased jury did not appear available under any circumstances,” according to the plea memorandum filed by his attorney.

It’s called jury nullification, the idea that jurors have the right to refuse to find a defendant guilty because they believe the underlying law is unjust, or because the conduct of law enforcement in the case was unjust in some manner even if the Court didn’t find that it violated the Defendant’s rights. Its been part of the American jury system from the beginning, and has often been a valuable tool in protecting people from overreaching by the state and law enforcement. For example in 1969, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said the following:

We recognize, as appellants urge, the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by the judge and contrary to the evidence. This is a power that must exist as long as we adhere to the general verdict in criminal cases, for the courts cannot search the minds of the jurors to find the basis upon which they judge. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic or passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision.

More recently, Courts have resisted jury nullification and the efforts of activists like the Fully Informed Jury Association to inform jury of their long standing common law rights, this general principle still stands, and it’s essentially what happened in this case. As Daniel Mitchell notes, the outcome of the Billings case is also a good sign that the American public is still able to think for itself:

The good people of western Montana certainly have the right attitude about victimless crimes. A jury pool in Missoula County basically told a court that they would not be willing to convict a defendant for possessing a tiny amount of marijuana.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened all over the country and politicians were forced to stop the war on drugs? That would be a Christmas present for the entire nation.

Indeed it would.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. james says:

    @ Doug

    Poll any State Trooper and see if they think none inforcement is a good idea.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 12

  2. anjin-san says:

    This is an interesting story. Love the idea of citizens drawing the line and refusing to participate in the governments insane war on pot.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1

  3. There’s jury nullification, and then there’s jury nullification. What you describe in this post is a proper function of a jury; the jury need not blind itself to justice while being asked to render a verdict.

    What FIJA advocates is that a jury not only has the power to refuse to convict in a specific case, but that its refusal to do so has the force and effect of striking down the law generally, and for everyone. That is a significant separation of powers issue; the judicial branch does not have the power to veto legislation (although I agree it has the power to find legislation unconstitutional, but that is a different kind of judicial function, and in which a jury does not participate).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  4. MM says:

    Poll any State Trooper and see if they think none inforcement is a good idea.

    Is this an appeal to authority or emotion? Are you going to follow up with an anecdote about a child’s doll laying outside a wrecked minivan, or an anecdote about we don’t understand the real dangers of demon weed like a police officer does? Just curious.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 4

  5. anjin-san says:

    I think I know what a state trooper would say. The war on exists because the law enforcement/judicial/prison industry did not want its funding cut when the Volstead Act was repealed. Nothing has really changed.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  6. Wayne says:

    Keep in mind that what this jury did in a case of drug possession can be done in other type of court cases as well. Big can of worms but I think many juries should ignore laws that shouldn’t have been past for their area in the first place. Laws that make since in L.A. doesn’t necessarily make since in a small farm community.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  7. Davebo says:

    “Poll any State Trooper and see if they think none inforcement is a good idea.”

    Ahem…

    http://copssaylegalize.blogspot.com

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  8. tom p says:

    >”Big can of worms but I think many juries should ignore laws that shouldn’t have been past for their area in the first place. Laws that make since in L.A. doesn’t necessarily make since in a small farm community.”

    Wayne: Huhhhhhh??? Please try again (seriously).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  9. tom p says:

    >”Poll any State Trooper and see if they think none inforcement is a good idea.”

    James, I really don’t give a rats ass if they think it is a good idea or not. They work for me.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 2

  10. anjin-san says:

    > James, I really don’t give a rats ass if they think it is a good idea or not. They work for me.

    Careful there, you are getting close to “disrespect of cop”. A lot of cops seem to think that is a crime.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  11. Gulliver says:

    Hmmm. Nullification of anyone charged with discriminatory practices when they refuse to rent or sell a product based on personal or religious beliefs. Better keep quiet about this, else the American public may just nullify most of what the left has worked so hard to project as acceptable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  12. An Interested Party says:

    “Better keep quiet about this, else the American public may just nullify most of what the left has worked so hard to project as acceptable.”

    Oh please…as if “the left” bears sole responsibility for laws/practices/customs that impede personal freedom…you might want to drop the scales from your eyes and look on your own side of the political aisle…by the way, possessing a couple of buds of marijuana is a very different thing than refusing to rent an apartment to someone because he is, say, black or Muslim…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  13. james says:

    Google marijuana,reflexs

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  14. matt says:

    Google Sleep deprivation…
    Google Alcohol,reflexs
    Google Caffeine side effects
    Google aspirin toxicity
    Google Tylenol toxicity

    etcetcetc

    I know of at least one state trooper that thinks pot needs to be legalized but there’s no way in hell I’m going to give you his name..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  15. tom p says:

    >”Careful there, you are getting close to “disrespect of cop”. A lot of cops seem to think that is a crime.”

    Anjin… absolutely correct. Hence, when ever I get pulled over by a cop, I always make a point of saying (very loudly I might add) “I AM NOW REACHING FOR MY DRIVERS LICENSE. DO I HAVE YOUR PERMISSION?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  16. tom p says:

    And they always say, “You’ve been through this before, haven’t you?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. Don L says:

    Jurist activism: breaking laws that were properly made by the legislature? Too bad Row vs. Wade could be determined this way – surely there are fifty million already who would like to sit in that jury pool.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. […] I know plenty of conservatives who are for medical marijuana as well as flat out legalizing it. Jury Nullification In Action: Montana Jury Pool Refuses To Convict For Marijuana Possession Jury Nullification In Action: Montana Jury Pool Refuses To Convict For Marijuana Possession […]

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