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Lawyer's Pot Arrest Ignites Dustup for Legalization Advocate

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WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. --It all started when Martha Davis called authorities about the dead deer she found on her property.

When a game warden responded and went looking for it, he spotted marijuana plants in a backyard flower bed, triggering a series of events that led to the arrest of the prominent lawyer, a prosecutor's decision to go easy on her and the subsequent intervention of an outraged Gov. Jim Douglas.

Now, supporters of Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand are speaking out on his behalf in a case that has renewed debate about Vermont drug policy and ignited concerns about political interference.

"I don't think it should happen," said Tara Stearns, a 33-year-old landscaper from Hartland, interviewed Wednesday outside a post office. "I think the state's attorney should have full rein, his own control. Let him do his job."

The dustup began Oct. 11, when Davis called authorities to report the deer on her Windsor property. Game Warden Stephen Majeski smelled and saw growing marijuana and recently harvested marijuana plants and obtained a search warrant that resulted in the seizure of 2 1/2 pounds and 32 plants growing in an indoor growing room.

"That's the last time I call a Game Warden, that's the last time I try to do things legally," Davis said when she was being arrested, according an affidavit filed in court by Majeski.

Davis, 61, was charged with felony cultivation and possession of marijuana, but Sand offered her court diversion, a program that allows juveniles and first-time adult offenders to do community service, undergo counseling or submit to other activities, with the charges being dropped upon completion.

Given the felony charge and the amount of marijuana confiscated, it was an unusual step. According to Valley Court Diversion program officials, only two suspects in felony marijuana cases were accepted into court diversion in the last fiscal year, out of about 200 cases total.

Douglas responded by ordering state law enforcement agencies handling "significant" marijuana cases with first-time offenders in Windsor County to refer them to the state or federal government for prosecution, bypassing Sand.

He did so because he was concerned about unequal application of the law in different counties and because of a perception that Davis got off easy because she was a lawyer and part-time judge.

"The governor believes that the state's attorneys' role is to enforce the law, not to impose a legal framework based on their ideology that they wish existed," said spokesman Jason Gibbs.

"Two and a half pounds of marijuana, plus 32 growing plants, that doesn't readily pass the straight-face test as being for personal consumption," said state Attorney General William Sorrell. "It could keep the average fraternity happy for a whole school year, with some left over for summer school."

But some say it was Douglas who overstepped his bounds.
On Tuesday, 36 county residents -- including former Lamoille County prosecutor Scott McGee -- asked Sorrel to disregard Douglas' order. Meanwhile, 11 state legislators -- all Democrats or Progressives -- have written to the Republican governor to urge him to back off.

"We believe it would be a radical departure from a criminal justice system that has worked well for two hundred years in this state to usurp the primary prosecutorial responsibilities of our state's attorney for crimes committed in our county," said McGee's group, in a letter released Wednesday.

Last week, the state took Davis off a list of approved attorneys to sit on family court cases. She couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. Telephone messages left at her office were not immediately returned.

Sand, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said there was no evidence Davis was selling drugs and that -- because she had a clean record and wasn't a threat to the public -- she was a good candidate for diversion.

Sand, 48, who was appointed in 1997 and elected three times since, running on both Democratic and Republican lines, has been a vocal advocate of decriminalizing certain drugs, saying they should be regulated but treated like alcohol and not available to children.

Douglas' move to bypass him is rare, if not unprecedented. Jane Woodruff, executive director of the state Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriff's Association, said no governor had done such a thing in at least 21 years.

But he had the power to.

In his territory, popular sentiment seems to be with Sand, but not everyone agrees with what he did.

While Douglas' order applied to Vermont State Police, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Motor Vehicles, at least one municipal agency decided it was the right thing to do.

Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston said he decided after Douglas' order to relay marijuana cases to the state for prosecution.

"I think he's sending the wrong message out there about drugs," he said of Sand. "There has to be some consistency across the state and handling these cases."

The county's police chiefs have asked for a meeting with Sand once he finishes with a murder trial that starts Nov. 26.

"I know there are some upset chiefs, and that's why we're holding a meeting," Johnston said.

Others take Sand's side.

"He's overreaching the influence of the people who elected (Sand)," said Andy Kelley, 49, of Hartland, referring to Douglas. "If it was an ethics thing where the prosecutor acted unethically, then they should come in and have him removed from duty. That doesn't appear to be the situation."

Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2007 Globe Newspaper Company
Contact: letter@globe.com
Website: The Boston Globe Online - Boston.com
 
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