Hilo marijuana minister Roger Christie has been held for 17 months without bail in the Honolulu Federal Detention Center.
While his 13 co-defendants were released pending trial, Christie — charged with growing, selling and possessing pot — has been denied bail because he is considered a “danger to the community.”
How unusual is it for someone charged with a felony to be denied bail?
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice told Civil Beat, “I’m sorry, that’s not something we would track. I’m not aware of anyone that does.”
At the U.S. Attorney’s office in Honolulu, Civil Beat’s inquiry was directed to Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliot Enoki. His voicemail said he was out of the office until Jan. 3
However, Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, a Vermont monthly that reports on prisoner rights, court rulings and prison issues, said denying bail in felony cases is not unusual.
“Something like 40 percent of federal defendants are held pretrial without bail,” he said. “Some people spend years in jail awaiting trial without bail. So that is pretty normal. The presumption of innocence isn’t what it used to be apparently.”
Meanwhile, a national advocate for drug-law reform who pays attention to state and federal marijuana cases, said he is “amazed” about the Christie case.
“I cannot recall hearing of another (drug) case in many years in which they have simply refused to set bond on the basis that someone is a threat to the community,” said Keith Stroup, legal council for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Bond Refusal in Pot Cases ‘Rare’
Prison Legal News said it’s difficult to break down how many of those 40 percent of federal defendants denied bail are facing marijuana charges.
Those same defendants, Wright said, could be charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, for example, or the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Statute, known as the “kingpin statute.”
Christie has not been charged under either RICO or the CCE statute, serious charges that usually entail lengthy sentences.
Stroup, who helped found the Washington, D.C.-based NORML in 1970, is a lobbyist for marijuana smokers’ rights. He also knows Christie, though he says he doesn’t always agree with him.
Stroup described court refusal to set bond for Christie as “rare.”
“Bonds are not intended to be punishment,” he said. “The only purpose is to have you show up at court. So, the presumption of innocence still applies.”
Stroup said some people charged with dealing marijuana, especially large quantities, have bonds as high as $100,000 — even $200,000. But he could not remember the last time no bond was allowed in a marijuana case.
Judges Have Discretion
Will Matthews, senior media relations associate with the ACLU’s national headquarters in New York City, said judges are required to make “individualized determinations” in bond matters.
Those determinations include factors like whether a defendant is a flight risk or a public-safety threat. (The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice rejected Christie’s appeal of his confinement.)
“What we know across the country — something we are seeing — is a troubling trend of judges too often not putting the effort into making these individualized assessments,” said Matthews. “People are being incarcerated needlessly and for longer periods than they should be.”
Matthews continued: “We are the leading jailer of the world, and a small but not insignificant part of this is judges not doing a good enough job of making individual determinations and thinking of alternatives. They could be monitored or put in supervised positions to keep tabs without forcing taxpayers to carry the fiscal burden of keeping this guy locked up.”
Said Stroup of NORML, “You always have drug testing, so obviously (Christie) is not going to be able to smoke marijuana. There are ankle bracelets. I find the argument that he’s dangerous disingenuous. There is nothing I have ever heard of in Roger’s history to suggest he is violent.”
Stroup continued: “As far as returning to selling his sacrement, I understand that would irritate (authorities), but they can monitor him. Even a telephone call that even suggested he was back to his old business, they’d revoke his probation and put him back in jail.”
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