Guilty Verdict Raises Serious Questions About Priorities During Budget Crisis –
Maria Pastor was taking her friend to a court hearing in Department 9, which is the arraignment court across Third Street from the main court building in Woodland. As she went through security, the Deputy at the screening line, Sgt. Batista noticed something suspicious in a purse going through the scanning machine. He saw something that looked like a smoking pipe. He found a pipe and a bag of white powder that turned out to test positive for presumptive meth.
Ms. Pastor faced charges for possession of meth, which even at the tiny amount that they found is a felony and a misdemeanor charge for possession of drug paraphernalia.
One of the critical questions in this case is what is a usable amount of meth? In this case the amount of meth was literally scraped off the back of the pipe. What is the legal limit of usable? We learned in this case that there is no legal definition and that number is up to the discretion of the jury.
However, the defense tried to create reasonable doubt in this case by introducing another story that the jury likely found ultimately implausible. Maria Pastor took her own defense. She claimed that when she picked up her friend, she noticed his housemate, Julie, whose last name she does not know, well dressed. She discovered she was having a job interview.
Suddenly Julie said that she liked Ms. Pastor’s purse better, and in a hurry they agreed to exchange purses. Ms. Pastor took out her wallet and put it in Julie’s purse and left. They went into the main courthouse without incident, realized it was the wrong building and went into Department 9. It was there that the meth pipe was discovered.
Ms. Pastor claimed it was Julie’s meth pipe and she had no idea it was there. Fingerprints or DNA were never taken in this case.
She did acknowledge that she had used meth herself the night before, hence the reason she tested positive. She claimed to be a period user, using meth once a week.
The jury after less than a day of deliberation, clearly did not buy this story, which seemed contrived and found her guilty on both charges.
While one can feel fairly comfortable in the jury’s verdict, based purely on the letter of the law, there seems something very much amiss her. Why is the DA using resources to prosecute as a felony a small possession charge? 0.0118 grams is tiny. And yet, now Ms. Pastor has been convicted of a felony,and it took three days of court resources. It took the reimbursed time of several experts. And it took the time of both the DA’s office to prosecute as well as the Public Defender’s office to defend.
There is little doubt in my mind that this was her meth. Was she foolish to have brought it to court? No doubt, and she probably did not realize it was there. Nevertheless, given the quantity charging this as a felony was an egregious waste of resources by a county that is strapped for cash.
It was in March that District Attorney Jeff Reisig lamented the impact of budget cuts. As reported in the Woodland Daily Democrat on March 22, in addressing the Woodland Chamber of Commerce:
“Reisig also told the audience, there are new budget cuts coming, and grants only allow certain aspects of funds to be used a certain way. Reisig says that because staff has already been cut as much as possible, services will suffer with this next round of budget cuts.
When the 2010-11 budget comes into play, it is likely that a number of proposed cuts will affect misdemeanor prosecution, meaning crimes such as vandalism, theft, and simple assault will likely involve arresting and releasing without charges.
The same might be true of juvenile prosecutions and as well as anti-truancy programs and white collar crime.”
A few weeks later on April 7, the Daily Democrat reported, “Potential budget cuts will cause Yolo County’s criminal justice system to regress to a time of backlogged cases, overcrowded jails, and greater victimization, according to DA Jeff Reisig.”
It continued, “During a budget workshop Tuesday, Reisig told the Board of Supervisors he can only, in good conscience, recommend cutting $766,187 of the more than $2 million asked of him by the County Administrator’s Office.”
Furthermore, “Any deeper, and the result will be ‘degradation in the streets’ and the virtual elimination of misdemeanor prosecution for both adults and juveniles.” While the DA has vowed to never overlook DUIs, domestic violence and battery against police officers, with about 4,000 other misdemeanor cases falling by the wayside, “the criminals figure out they can now carry around meth pipes and marijuana with little or no consequence.”
Indeed, lest you believe this case of felony prosecution is for a tiny amount of meth is unique, the public defender in this case informed me he has a similar case coming up next month where the amount of meth is 0.02.
The bottom line here is that given our budget challenges as the DA himself has acknowledged, maybe it is time to re-prioritize what cases are prosecuted and how our criminal justice system is applied. I want dangerous criminals taken off the streets and put into prison. In order for that to happen, people who represent no threat to anyone but themselves ought to not end up clogging up a courtroom for three days.
Someone pointed out to me that drug possession is illegal. It is. But we do not have the luxury to prosecute every case to the hilt anymore. Prosecuting this case means that perhaps another case does not get prosecuted.
It may seem insignificant that Ms. Pastor will likely receive some sort of suspended sentence and probation. However, consider what Leonard Pitts Jr. wrote in the Sac Bee on June 27, 2010, chronicling a new book by Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow.”
According to Mr. Pitts, Ms. Alexander, “contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation.”
Ludicrous you say? Ms. Alexander chronicles cases of Oakland police officers accused of planting drugs and beating up innocent victims. The result of these drug laws means a huge number of people are felons. Felons cannot vote. Most jobs will not hire them. They cannot get loans. So effectively a felon is disenfranchised, unable to get most jobs, and not able to buy a home – they are second class citizens and all of these factors not coincidentally were true during Jim Crow.
At least in Ms. Pastor’s case in Yolo County, she received good representation from the Public Defender’s Office and Mr. Richard Van Zandt. Ms. Alexander chronicles huge numbers of cases where people where people take felony pleas without ever having spoken to a lawyer.
It would be one thing if these were serious charges and dangerous criminals. In Ms. Pastor’s case, you just have to wonder what our priorities are and whether the cries of poverty should be perhaps be driven more introspectively into the charges practices of the DA’s office again.
Perhaps the DA can start taking questions from the County Board of Supervisors about their charges practices and cut out some of the histrionics about turning dangerous people loose if we continue to cut their budget to fix what has been $36 million in budget shortfalls the previous two fiscal years.
—David M. Greenwald reporting