Legal experts question Windsor marijuana case

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(Host) Some legal experts are questioning Governor Jim Douglas’ reaction to a marijuana possession case in Windsor County.

Douglas has ordered state police to bypass the Windsor state’s attorney and refer marijuana cases to the attorney general’s office for prosecution.

VPR’s Ross Sneyd has the story.

(Sneyd) Controversy erupted over the handling of a case involving a 61 year old lawyer from Windsor.

Martha Davis was accused of cultivating marijuana. Game wardens say they seized 2½ pounds of pot and found 32 plants.

But the Windsor County state’s attorney, Robert Sand, decided not to pursue a felony case. Instead, he referred Davis to court diversion.

So, Davis will have to go through substance abuse counseling, pay some fees and possibly perform community service.

Once those requirements are fulfilled, Davis will be free of the criminal justice system – and will have no criminal record.

That’s what’s drawn criticism.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says, given the amount of marijuana involved, he doesn’t think diversion was appropriate.

Governor Douglas doesn’t, either.

He’s ordered state police to refer major marijuana cases from Windsor County to Sorrell’s office or to the U.S. attorney for prosecution.

Sorrell says that’s within the law – but unusual.

(Sorrell) "It’s the first time that in a particular county that a sitting governor has directed the law enforcement that answers to the governor to refer certain cases to the AG’s office, rather than the county state’s attorney.”

(Sneyd) Sorrell says he’s sure the governor’s position will not sit well with prosecutors.

(Sorrell) "Is this a slap in the face? If I was a county prosecutor, I wouldn’t be happy about this action by the governor.”

(Sneyd) Geoffrey Shields is the dean of the Vermont Law School.

He says state’s attorneys are independently elected – and county voters will fire a prosecutor if they think he’s not upholding the law.

(Shields) "The heart of the Vermont system is to give significant discretion to the local state’s attorney. And I believe that’s a good system. I don’t like big government. I don’t like big government coming down and imposing its will on a perfectly logical and capable local system. And that’s what happened here and I think it’s a mistake.”

(Sneyd) The chairman of the state Senate’s Judiciary Committee thinks it may be a mistake, too.

Senator Dick Sears says he’s uneasy with sending the Windsor case to diversion. But he says he’s also uncomfortable with the governor deciding which cases should be prosecuted locally or at the state level.

(Sears) "What’s to stop a future governor from saying I don’t like the way prosecutor prosecuted X type of cases. I’m going to have all state police and Fish and Wildlife, and etc., take all those cases to the attorney general. So I think that there needs to be some consideration there of this slippery slope that we’re headed down.”

(Sneyd) The backdrop to the current debate is the position Sand has taken on drug cases.

He’s said in the past that the government’s war on drugs has failed and certain drug laws should be decriminalized.

For VPR News, I’m Ross Sneyd.


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