Although marijuana is legal in California, there has been some dispute over whether police can be prosecuted under federal law for returning personal stashes of marijuana to people, just like other personal belongings such as money and car keys, when they are released from jail. But a San Francisco court issued a verdict earlier this week that will help clarify the issue for confused law enforcement agencies.
On Monday, the San Francisco Superior Court ruled police agencies, judges and other members of the law enforcement community are protected from federal prosecution when returning less than an ounce of weed back to those people being released from incarceration.
The situation is no different than returning other personal property, the court said. Although the U.S. government considers the possession and distribution of marijuana to be a criminal offense, law enforcement is removed from any liability when “lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law or municipal ordinance relating to controlled substances,” according to the verdict.
This question of liability was brought forth earlier this year after a man by the name of Robert Smith was arrested on other charges. In his backpack, officers found three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. A judge ruled in April that the cops were not required to give Smith his weed back since doing so could put them in a position of having to answer to Uncle Sam.
However, the latest ruling, which indicates that California’s pot laws require police to return marijuana as long as it is well within the possession limits, sets a precedent for all future cases. California police cannot permanently confiscate personal amounts of marijuana from suspects on their way home.
Interestingly, the courts should have never been forced to decide on this case, to begin with. It had already been dealt with.
Last year, a California appeals court ruled that police must return medical marijuana to patients once they are released from jail. The panel in the latest case finds that the situation is no different now that marijuana is legal for recreational use. Marijuana is personal property and it should be given back to the owner.
“The San Francisco Police Department would be returning the … marijuana pursuant to a court order, and not acting as drug ‘pushers’ the (federal law) was designed to combat,” the court said.
It is important to understand that the Smith case is not an isolated incident. Police have been seizing and keeping legal marijuana for some time. Smith’s attorney, University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon, who calls the verdict “an important victory in (a) seemingly small case,” says she, alone, has represented several clients who got wrapped up in the same situation.
The verdict does not protect people caught in possession of more than the allotted 28 grams.