Los Angeles Juvenile Defense Attorney

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California’s Ban on Synthetic Marijuana

Monday, July 30th, 2012

This is not your parents’ marijuana or the marijuana you might have encountered when you were a teenager.

In the last several years, a new designer drug has become available, much of it used by juveniles—synthetic marijuana.

Unlike old-fashioned, naturally grown marijuana, synthetic marijuana was sold over the counter by a variety of retail establishments such as gas stations and corner groceries under brand names such as “Spice,” “K2,” and “Red X Dawn.” These products were often marketed as a safer herbal alternative to marijuana.  In essence, synthetic marijuana is plant material that has been treated with a coating of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Although synthetic marijuana looks like marijuana, scientific evidence indicates that is significantly more potent.  As a result, the symptoms are more severe, including loss of consciousness, paranoia, and psychotic episodes.  A more common and colorful way of describing the effects of synthetic marijuana is “couch lock”—as in you can’t get off the couch.

In 2011, California criminalized the sale and distribution of synthetic marijuana. Specifically, it added Health and Safety Code Section 11357.5, which makes selling, possessing, or distributing synthetic marijuana a misdemeanor:

a) Every person who sells, dispenses, distributes, furnishes, administers, or gives, or offers to sell, dispense, distribute, furnish, administer, or give, or possesses for sale any synthetic cannabinoid compound, or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative, to any person, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months, or by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.

(b) As used in this section, the term “synthetic cannabinoid compound” refers to any of the following substances:

(1) 1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole (JWH-018).

(2) 1-butyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole (JWH-073).

(3) 1-U2-(4-morpholinyl)ethyl]-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole (JWH-200).

(4) 5-(1,1-dimethylheptyl)-2-U(1R,3S)-3-hydroxycyclohexyl]-phenol(CP-47,497).

(5) 5-(1,1-dimethyloctyl)-2-U(1R,3S)-3-hydroxycyclohexyl]-phenol(cannabicyclohexanol; CP-47, 497 C8 homologue).

As a misdemeanor, a juvenile with no prior record may be be eligible for a drug diversion program in which they admit the charge, and are put on probation for a period of six months.  If they then complete some drug education classes, perform community service, keep their grades up, and otherwise stay out of trouble, the charge is dismissed at the end of the six months.  If, on the other hand, their involvement with synthetic marijuana is not their first offense, the penalties will be more severe, including becoming a ward of the court with more restrictive supervision from the probation department.

Although synthetic marijuana prosecutions have been relatively rare, I expect that judges and District Attorneys in California to take synthetic marijuana cases seriously.  Ironically, the crackdown on synthetic marijuana may cause teens and other juveniles to turn to a safer alternative—old-fashioned, naturally grown marijuana.

As a juvenile criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, I can assure you that this wouldn’t be the first time that our so-called “war on drugs” merely shifted consumption from one drug to another.

One 20-Minute Hearing—Two Consecutive 30 Year Prison Sentences

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

If a child is accused of murdering two adults, what is a reasonable amount of time to determine whether they should be treated as an adult?

I am a criminal defense lawyer representing juveniles in Los Angeles, so you may think this is a trick question.  It isn’t.

A recent feature article in the Sunday New York Times describes the legal saga of Greg Ousley, from Indiana, who killed his parents when he was 14 years old.

With 24 hours of the killings, Greg “confessed” to the police.  Greg certainly admitted to pulling the trigger, but that doesn’t mean that his confession was legally valid.  There is reason to believe it may not have been.  Indiana law at the time didn’t permit juveniles to waive their Miranda rights-without parental approval.  So what do you do in a case where the parents aren’t alive?  The police were aware of the law, but simply ignored it.  They continued to interrogate Greg.

Greg doesn’t deny that he shot both of his parents with a shotgun. It’s also undeniable that the killings weren’t spontaneous.  There is evidence in the form of diary entries that strongly suggest that he planned the killings over a number of days.  There’s also no denying that this is a shocking crime and it’s difficult to get one’s head around it.

But let’s return to the questions with which I started this entry.  Shocking as this crime is, how much time should we devote to figuring out whether Greg Ousley should have been tried as an adult?  Reasonable people can disagree about the answer to this question, but I hope we can agree that this issue deserves more time than Greg received—one 20-minute hearing in court.

That’s right; two days after “confessing,” and less than three days since the crime was committed, thanks to his court-appointed lawyer, Greg got a single lousy 20-minute hearing.

Two days later, Greg was taken into court for a hearing on whether his case should be routed into the adult legal system. His court-appointed lawyer might have asked for a preliminary psychiatric examination, a procedure that would have at least slowed the process down, but he declined to do so. He might have also asserted that the presence of premeditation — the prosecutor’s chief argument for taking it to adult court — was a particularly poor standard in the context of juvenile parricide; given the physical and psychological power imbalance inherent in child-parent relationships, a not uncommon feature to such murders is premeditation. He declined to do that as well. And so in a single 20-minute hearing held less than 72 hours after the murders, it was decided that the 14-year-old would stand as an adult.

Greg accepted a plea of guilty but mentally ill.  At his sentencing hearing, three psychological examiners hired by defense counsel argued that Greg shouldn’t just be sent to jail; he should receive treatment.  The prosecutor argued that an example should be made of Greg.  The prosecutor won.  And Greg was sentenced to two consecutive 30 year prison sentences. That was 19 years ago.

Today, Greg Ousley is a poster child for how juveniles can turn their lives around, even in jail.  He is by all accounts a model prisoner.  Some of his biggest supporters are the hard-to-impress officials who work for the prison system.  He completed online courses and graduated from college with honors.  He is a good example of why the United States Supreme Court was correct to strike down laws that sentence juveniles to life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Greg’s case raises many difficult and confounding issues.  That’s why his story has received so much attention.  But as a juvenile defense lawyer, I can’t help but focus on those crucial moments in the days following his arrest.  Whatever you think of Greg Ousely and whether he should be released from prison now, it’s clear that a more engaged and aggressive criminal juvenile criminal defense lawyer would likely have made a big difference.