CA: James Benno Marijuana Case Dismissed, Ending Four-Year Legal Battle

Photo Credit: Robin Abcarian

Medical marijuana activist James Benno and his two sons walked out of Shasta County Superior Court Monday as free men after the long-running criminal case against them was dismissed after a four-year legal battle.

The charges were dismissed as part of the legalization of recreation marijuana under Prop. 64.

“I just want my life back,” the relieved 52-year-old Benno said following the dismissal and after being congratulated by about a dozen supporters. “Man, that went good. I’m still in kind of a state of shock.”

Benno and his supporters, who chided prosecutors for wasting taxpayer money on he case, said he was never intimated by the prosecution, noting he was raised by Catholic schoolteacher and a federal prison guard.

“These people (prosecutors) never scared me,” he said.

In a case that has gone on for years, Superior Court Judge Dan Flynn, who tentatively ruled last month he was inclined to dismiss the case, issued his final ruling after attorneys briefly argued their respective cases.

“I’m just thankful it’s over,” Jacob Benno , 26, said as he, his father and his brother Logan, 23, were joined by their supporters, including one of their attorneys, in a court lobby after the dismissal

“I’m thankful to get a fresh start,” said Logan Benno, who also thanked his supporters. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

James Benno, overcome with emotion and fought back tears, voiced his relief and hugged his supporters, including a woman who had served on the jury during the family’s trial last year.

That former juror, Christy Bloom of Redding, said she believed the case against Benno and his sons was improperly handled by the District Attorney’s Office and that the father and sons had done nothing wrong.

“They followed the laws,” she said.

Benno and his sons were arrested in May 2014 after a law enforcement raid at their 100-plant garden in Happy Valley.

A slew of felony charges involving growing and sales of marijuana were eventually reduced to misdemeanors due to the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis use.

But a Shasta County jury acquitted the three of 15 of 17 counts in March 2017, including cultivation and the possession of marijuana for sale.

The DA’s Office later dismissed one of the two hung counts — conspiracy to manufacture a controlled substance — and was hoping to try them on a sole felony count of manufacturing concentrated cannabis.

In her motion to dismiss the felony count, however, defense attorney Ashley J. Bargenquast, who represented Logan Benno, said last month the prosecution on that criminal count should be under a Health and Safety code revolving around the cultivation and processing of marijuana.

But, she pointed out, such a prosecution would violate the Bennos’ double jeopardy rights, noting they were all acquitted of the charges applicable to that code section.

In a legal motion she filed in Superior Court, Bargenquast said the DA’s attempted prosecution of the Bennos under a Health and Safety code section dealing with the manufacture of concentrated cannabis is deeply flawed, adding it would be a waste of time and taxpayer money for the prosecution to take it to trial.

It was an issue in that code section over the definition of ethanol in connection with marijuana extraction that led the jury to hang on the manufacturing count, she said.

“This question ultimately boils down to whether ethanol is volatile or nonvolatile, which controls whether the use of it to create cannabis concentrates” violates that safety code section.

She noted, however, that the California Department of Public Health recently downgraded the definition of ethanol from volatile to nonvolatile.

Shasta County Chief Deputy District Attorney Ben Hanna argued Monday that using ethanol to create concentrated cannabis can be risky and start a fire and explosion.

“This is a significantly dangerous process,” he said.

But Bargenquast said that process is permitted under law.

“This is exactly the process allowed,” she said.

Following the dismissal of the case, Hanna departed the courthouse and was heckled by one of Benno’s supporters, who accused him of “framing” defendants.

That remark led to a testy exchange of words between Benno and Hanna, who believed the remark been voiced by Benno,.

“Sore loser,” Benno said to those around him as Hanna walked away.

Benno and his sons had faced a maximum punishment of seven years in jail if they had been retried and convicted of the manufacturing court.

And although the case against Benno and his sons is now over, Benno said he will strive to gett back those items seized by law enforcement in the 2014 raid, including weapons, high-capacity magazines, a personal computer and about 70 pounds of marijuana.