A Colorado Springs resident lost his bid to recover the marijuana that was seized from him by police – even though he’d been acquitted of crimes related to that possession – because, as Colorado Supreme Court justices ruled: Doing so would require that police officers become distributors of marijuana. As such, they would be violating state law to do so.
This precedent-setting ruling, which overturned the Colorado Court of Appeals, has the potential to influence sister courts in other states, and in the event there is conflict, the possibility that it will require input from the U.S. Supreme Court. The state-level appellate court had held that police officers were required to return marijuana to defendants who won their court cases alleging illegal possession.
But now, the Colorado Supreme Court justices say that to do so would require police to become complicit in violating the Controlled Substances Act.
Three of Colorado’s justices dissenting, arguing the federal Controlled Substances Act in this instance in effect immunizes the federal government and state officials from civil and criminal liability with regard to these circumstances. However, the majority concluded that the state’s medical marijuana law doesn’t shield officers from unlawful acts under federal statute. The state high court held that the “return provision” of the amendment in Colorado is pre-empted by federal law and thus rendered void.
The underlying case involves a criminal charge stemming from a 2011 marijuana arrest in Colorado Springs of a man accused of growing and possessing marijuana. In the course of the investigation, authorities seized drug paraphernalia, as well as 55 cannabis plants and nearly 3 kilos of the drug from defendant’s home. Defendant was charged with a felony for growing more than 30 marijuana plants.
The case went to trial, where defendant was acquitted after he was able to show he was a registered medical marijuana patient who was authorized by the state to both grow and possess the drug legally.
After the trial, defendant requested that the district court ask police to return the marijuana plants that were seized in conformance with the portion of the state law that indicates upon acquittal, any marijuana seized in connection with the case should be “returned immediately.”
Police initially refused, although later, did actually return it. Still, this case pressed forward because prosecutors did not want to concede that this was something police agencies should be forced to do in the future. An attorney for the former defendant said that while he disagrees with the state supreme court’s ruling, it doesn’t directly impact his client.
The district attorney insisted that pressing forward with this case was important because there was “a real conflict in the law,” which concerned law enforcement officers. They didn’t want to get caught up in a situation where they would be forced to violate federal statutes.
There is concern that this is going to set a precedent for the 20 other states that now allow legalized marijuana in some form, whether medicinal or recreational. The underlying point is that federal law is going to take precedent where it conflicts with state law.
The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 949-375-4734.
Cops can’t be forced to return marijuana in failed drug cases, Colorado Supreme Court says, Jan. 23, 2017, By Alicia Wallace, The Colorado Supreme Court
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