Red Dirt Justice
Redneck justice in red dirt Alabama has Loretta Nall seeing red. Nall, a housewife from rural Alexandria City, was convicted Tuesday of possession of .87 of a gram of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia some 15 months after the Tallapoosa County Narcotics Task Force raided her home -- and 15 months and one week after Nall published a letter in the state's largest newspaper calling for the reform of the state's marijuana laws.
She told DRCNet she would immediately appeal the decision.
Nall, who is now president of the US Marijuana Party, began her career as a marijuana activist after her home was targeted by anti-drug helicopters in September 2002, two months before her arrest. That her arrest was at least in part politically motivated is evident in the fact that the search warrant leading to the bust cited as evidence her letter to the Birmingham News, where she wrote, "it is time to end cannabis prohibition." The only other evidence cited in the warrant was remarks Nall's five-year-old daughter was alleged to have made to either a teacher or a police officer assigned to her school and a supposed report from a "confidential informant" that unnamed persons were complaining of Nall's drug activity.
Nall's trial before Tallapoosa County District Court Judge Kim Taylor was a journey into Alice in Wonderland justice, Nall said. The search warrant was illegal and should never have been issued, she and her attorney argued, in a strong but ultimately futile effort to get the warrant thrown out and the charges dismissed. Judge Taylor, who issued the warrant in question, upheld himself, but testimony from the trial suggests that his ruling had little to do with the law.
Under the Constitution, which applies even in rural Alabama, police must present a judge with evidence they have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed in order to secure a valid search warrant. But under cross-examination by Nall's attorney, that probable cause seemingly melted into air. Officer Eric McCain, the school resource officer who claimed that Nall's daughter ratted her out, offered varying versions of what the girl said, who she said it to, and who was present. First, McCain said that five-year-old Bell Nall spontaneously told him about green plants hanging from her ceiling. Then he testified that Bell's teacher approached him with the information. He also testified that he questioned Bell outside the classroom with no other adults present. Then he testified that her teacher was there. Then he testified that he might have questioned her in the classroom.
In the affidavit McCain submitted to support the search warrant, he said nothing about green plants hanging from the ceiling. Rather, he said that Bell told him some of the leaves she had brought from home for a school project were "illegal." Under cross-examination, McCain could not recall how many times he had obtained search warrants based on the testimony of a five-year-old, although he did concede that young children have vivid imaginations and have been known to make things up.
Officer McCain also testified that he included the letter to the editor Nall had published in the Birmingham News a week earlier as part of the affidavit supporting the issuance of a search warrant. But McCain contradicted himself moments later, saying that he didn't find the letter until the raid, which left hanging the question of how he could include it in the affidavit if he wasn't aware it existed until a week later. And in yet another bizarre twist, he could not produce the letter, which was Exhibit A in the case.
As for the "confidential informant" report on Nall, under cross-examination McCain conceded that local police had received no prior complaints about Nall or her residence, where she lives with her horticulturist husband and two children. McCain then said he had received complaints from concerned citizens, but under continued questioning, admitted that he did not document the alleged complaints and that no list of such complaints existed.
Testimony showed that the search warrant was based on protected political speech (Nall's letter to the editor), a very hazy allegation about what a 5-year-old said, and an even hazier set of anonymous complaints whose existence could not even be proven. It appeared an open and shut case of a bad search warrant. But not in the court of the judge who issued it. After hearing the evidence, Judge Kim Taylor upheld the warrant, virtually ensuring Nall's conviction on the marijuana and paraphernalia charges.
That happened later in the day, after more bizarre testimony from police and strange evidentiary decisions from Judge Taylor. Police misidentified the oversize envelope in which they found the leftover roach that constituted their drug seizure, repeatedly referring to it as a FedEx envelope even as courtroom spectators could see it was a USPS envelope. Taylor allowed prosecutors to enter into evidence a police videotape of the raid that did not show marijuana being seized, but did, Nall notes, "show some lovely pictures of the inside of my toilet bowls."
Officer Josh McCallister testified that he found rolling papers in a bedroom not near to where the pot was found. McCallister conceded that rolling papers could be used to roll tobacco cigarettes. He also testified that he found scales in the kitchen, but that there was no evidence of drug residue on them, they had not been tested and yes, scales have many common uses. Nall, who makes candles, said she used them in her work.
Police did not find any evidence of a marijuana grow, nor did they find any large quantities of marijuana. But the half-smoked roach, the rolling papers and the scales were enough to convict her on the two charges. She faces a suspended 30-day jail sentence, has to go to a court referral and must pay court costs for the possession charge, but not for the paraphernalia charge.
None of that matters because the case will be overturned on appeal, Nall believes. "The judge's rulings and his conduct were deplorable," she added. "He flirted with women during the proceedings, he laid his head back and closed his eyes for minutes at a time, and he did not appear to even pay attention to anything our side said. He cared nothing for the fact that he held my very life in his hands. It didn't matter to him that the cops were obviously lying and contradicting themselves time and time again."
Some 700,000 people are arrested on marijuana charges in the United States each year. The proceedings in the Nall case lead one to wonder just how crappy are the charges in the rest of these cases. In most cases, the police evidence is never put to the test because defendants opt to plead guilty, but perhaps more should fight. While the judge's rulings in the Nall trial are not encouraging, they do have a good chance of being overturned on appeal, and if police and prosecutors are forced to actually present real cases instead of merely intimidating their victims to cop a plea, perhaps their enthusiasm for persecuting drug users will diminish.
"This kind of thing is an education for the public," Nall said. "I hired a court reporter so I could post the complete trial transcripts -- they should be on the web site in a couple of weeks -- and she asked me after the trial if she really sat there and heard them say they things they had said and if they were really pursuing me for allegedly possessing 0.87 grams of marijuana. She was appalled and said she had never witnessed anything like it in her life."
Nall's enthusiasm for taking the war to the drug warriors has certainly not diminished, and she, too, is appalled. "I am appalled at what I witnessed yesterday. I sit here now and wonder just how many innocent people are in jail because of judges like this one? How many lives have been destroyed because people did not have the resources to fight on?"