After it all happened, she said, “When the dog started barking, I knew there was something wrong.”
It was a beautiful day in October, and we had left San Diego in the early morning, trying to make good time to Phoenix for a wedding. The drive was uneventful. We stopped in Yuma for breakfast, and just before noon pulled up to the second Border Patrol stop along I–8. Halfway between Yuma and Gila Bend, our boring drive became a drama in the desert. The big net had caught a tiny fish.
I rolled my window partway down, and the Border Patrol agent put his hand up, signaling for us to stop.
I did. When I looked at my wife, he asked, “Is this vehicle registered to you?” I nodded, as several more agents surrounded our car. Right then, I realized what was happening. I was pointed toward and escorted to “secondary,” a pop-up canopy on the dirt shoulder of the road, where I put the car in park and turned off the motor. My wife and kids were ushered to a nearby bench. It was to become a new American experience, Homeland Security gone wild, and my introduction to the thriving economy revolving around Wellton, AZ.
As a couple of guards searched the car, and the dog sniffed and searched, the agent said, “Please empty your pockets on the table.” I dumped most of my stuff, wallet, coins, bills, and keys. I hesitated, and he approached me. “Here, this is all I have,” I said.
It was a small bud of pot, the size of a thimble, loose in a baggie. The dog could smell it in my pants pocket from ten feet beyond the passenger side of the car, with the windows rolled up, ten yards before I came to a stop, waiting to be waved through the checkpoint — or so it seemed. I also had a metal “cigarette” pipe that you can take a small hit of pot with. I slipped that to the agent as well, trying to keep my kids from seeing it.
We sat for a while as they ran a background check and found my record clean.
After searching the car, and finding nothing else, a guy led me toward my car. “We are in the State of Arizona, where possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia are each felonies,” he said. “Since you have no previous record, if you cooperate, we can cite you and send you on your way. About a month from now, you’ll have to appear in court in Wellton, Arizona, a town about 20 miles back, toward Yuma, on Highway 8. If you would rather not cooperate, we will arrest you, but your family is free to go. It’s your choice.”
So off I went to their trailer headquarters, where several other agents worked at computers entering data. Spartan desks were set up for processing the lawbreakers.
After being asked where I got it from — “A friend with a medical marijuana card” — and how much I paid — “It was a gift” — and waiting another 20 minutes. I signed a citation that promised I would return to Wellton. My agent handed me a copy. “If you call this number in about a week, they’ll answer any questions you have.” I walked back out to our car, where my family was waiting. As we drove away, my wife explained to the kids that all the paperwork was because our dog Axel had made the other dog bark; he’d smelled him in our car.
The weekend was uneventful after that. Our friends in Phoenix asked about the drive over, and it was “all smooth, no traffic, we made good time.” We left early Sunday morning, and heading back to San Diego, we passed that same east-bound checkpoint. I looked over, and I swear there was a burgundy Ford Extra Cab pickup with the doors open, the border patrol dog on a leash, a couple of 20ish kids in shorts being rousted, the whole scenario going down again.
So I came home and waited for a week. The citation read “attempted possession of marijuana,” and “attempted possession of drug paraphernalia.” So I called the court in Wellton and talked to the clerk, my new friend, Rina. She warned, “There’s only so much that I can tell you.” She pulled up my citation. “In cases like yours, the charge is automatically reduced to a misdemeanor.” So I asked, “Well what happens when I appear in court?”
She said, “We only do these types of cases on Tuesdays at 1:30 p.m. On the day you are scheduled to appear, there are about 80 other people with a similar charge. The courtroom only holds about 40, so the list will be divided in half, and there will be two proceedings. The judge will first explain the procedure and the charges against you. She will then present the prosecutor from Yuma County, who explains your options. He will offer you a plea agreement — or at that point you can plead not guilty. If you plead not guilty, you can hire a lawyer, or if you can’t afford a lawyer, the court will assign a public defender to your case.” That was it.
I did some research online to try to figure out my options. What I found is that there are several links to the same law firm (based out of Phoenix), hoping that people like me, who’ve been stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoints and charged with any kind of drug violation, will hire them. They offer a free consultation to discuss your case. Mine went like this:
He said, “Drug laws in Arizona are different from California. These are serious charges. For each charge, the maximum sentence could be a fine up to $4600, 180 days in jail, and/or probation, depending on your circumstance.” So I asked what I could expect from him if I retained his services. For a flat fee of $2000, he would save me a drive back to appear in Wellton, and before my court date, contact the prosecutor and try to get the charges reduced or possibly dismissed. I asked if, based on his experience and my situation — that I had no criminal record and a very small amount of pot — what a likely outcome might be.