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September 14, 2018

Marijuana, mandatory minimums and jury nullification, oh my: split Ninth Circuit affirms panel federal convictions, though remands to address DOJ spending rider

A big, long and split decision by a panel of the Ninth Circuit yesterday in US v. Lynch, No. 10-50219 (9th Cir, Sept. 13, 2018) (available here), prompted the weak "Wizard of Oz" reference in the title of this post.  There is so much of interest in Lynch for sentencing fans and others, I cannot cover it all in this post. The majority's introduction provides a sense of the case's coverage:

Charles Lynch ran a marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, in violation of federal law.  He was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture, possess, and distribute marijuana, as well as other charges related to his ownership of the dispensary.  In this appeal, Lynch contends that the district court made various errors regarding Lynch’s defense of entrapment by estoppel, improperly warned jurors against nullification, and allowed the prosecutors to introduce various evidence tying Lynch to the dispensary’s activities, while excluding allegedly exculpatory evidence offered by Lynch.  However, Lynch suffered no wrongful impairment of his entrapment by estoppel defense, the anti-nullification warning was not coercive, and the district court’s evidentiary rulings were correct in light of the purposes for which the evidence was tendered.  A remand for resentencing is required, though, on the government’s cross-appeal of the district court’s refusal to apply a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, which unavoidably applies to Lynch.

Following the filing of this appeal and after the submission of the government’s brief, the United States Congress enacted an appropriations provision, which this court has interpreted to prohibit the federal prosecution of persons for activities compliant with state medical marijuana laws. Lynch contends that this provision therefore prohibits the United States from continuing to defend Lynch’s conviction.  We need not reach the question of whether the provision operates to annul a properly obtained conviction, however, because a genuine dispute exists as to whether Lynch’s activities were actually legal under California state law. Remand will permit the district court to make findings regarding whether Lynch complied with state law.

Judge Watford dissented from the panel majority in Lynch, and his dissent starts this way:

I would reverse and remand for a new trial. In my view, the district court went too far in trying to dissuade the jury from engaging in nullification.  The court’s actions violated Charles Lynch’s constitutional right to trial by jury, and the government can’t show that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

By its very nature, a case of this sort touches a sensitive nerve from a federalism standpoint.  At the time of Lynch’s trial in 2008, the citizens of California had legalized the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes; the federal government nonetheless sought to prosecute a California citizen for conduct that arguably was authorized under state law. Because federal law takes precedence under the Supremacy Clause, the government could certainly bring such a prosecution, notwithstanding the resulting intrusion upon state sovereignty interests.  See Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 29 (2005).  But the Framers of the Constitution included two provisions that act as a check on the national government’s exercise of power in this realm: one stating that “[t]he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury”; the other requiring that “such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 3.  The Sixth Amendment further mandates that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to trial “by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”  Thus, to send Lynch to prison, the government had to persuade a jury composed of his fellow Californians to convict.

One of the fundamental attributes of trial by jury in our legal system is the power of the jury to engage in nullification — to return a verdict of not guilty “in the teeth of both law and facts.” Horning v. District of Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 138 (1920).  The jury’s power to nullify has ancient roots, dating back to pre-colonial England.  See Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200–1800, at 236–49 (1985) (discussing Bushell’s Case, 124 Eng. Rep. 1006 (C.P. 1670)).  It became a well-established fixture of jury trials in colonial America, perhaps most famously in the case of John Peter Zenger, a publisher in New York acquitted of charges of seditious libel.  See Albert W. Alschuler & Andrew G. Deiss, A Brief History of the Criminal Jury in the United States, 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 867, 871–74 (1994).  From ratification of the Constitution to the present, the right to trial by jury has been regarded as “essential for preventing miscarriages of justice,” Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 158 (1968), in part because the jury’s power to nullify allows it to act as “the conscience of the community,” Jeffrey Abramson, We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy 87 (1994).

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 14, 2018 at 09:53 AM | Permalink

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