Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has developed an approach to marijuana prosecutions that has dramatically thinned a longtime backlog and allowed hundreds of defendants to walk away with probation instead of jail.
But some in the legal community are worried the program amounts to government extortion, favoring well-to-do defendants and threatening to deprive innocent people of assets that belong to them.
The idea is based on a new reading of a section of the California health and safety code that requires defendants to reimburse police for cleaning up meth labs and weed grows.
Defendants in Mendocino are allowed to pay restitution of $50 per plant or $500 per pound of processed cannabis seized by police. In return, they get probation and plead to a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
Eyster’s approach to reimbursement also uses a tool known as civil forfeiture, common in marijuana cases. Local and federal law enforcement typically use this to seize buildings, vehicles, money, and other property connected to alleged crimes, before trial and even from people who weren’t involved in the crime, such as landlords who rent to medical marijuana dispensaries.
Under the restitution program, suspects typically plead guilty, agree to pay restitution, and surrender their rights to whatever property the government has seized.
This approach has generated millions of dollars through Eyster’s office. The reimbursement money, $3.7 million since 2011, goes back to the police departments and other investigating agencies that target pot providers. Asset forfeitures, which amounted to $4.4 million in 2013 – nearly double the amount from 2012 – are shared by the district attorney, local police, and the state.
Eyster’s office is in the black and weed cases are moving quickly for the first time in years. And many former defendants praise the program. Yet many legal observers say it creates an unfair situation for people accused of marijuana crimes.
Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan called the program “extortion of defendants” last year during a hearing for a man charged with growing 800 plants. A federal grand jury has subpoenaed Eyster’s office seeking accounting records on the program.
Reimbursement encourages prosecutors to treat defendants with money better than those without, and encourages police to target suspects with substantial assets, regardless of what they’ve done, said Alex Kreit, associate provessor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego.
“It suggests a two-tiered system of justice, where people who don’t have the money for the restitution or don’t have assets they can use as a bargaining chip may get more severe criminal punishments,” Kreit said.