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.
“I’m pretty sure I can get the drug possession charge dropped in exchange for a fine for the paraphernalia charge.”
“And what kind of fine do you think I’m looking at?”
“And that’s it?”
“Yup, then you’re done. You don’t need to ever come back to Wellton.”
So I thanked him and hung up. Then I called a friend who is a law clerk in San Diego.
I explained my whole story, and afterward she explained to me that it is in the court’s best interest to expedite cases like mine. There was a strong likelihood that the Arizona justice system wanted only my money, that they didn’t want to rehab me, monitor my probation, or put me in jail. “The public defender in Wellton (who is called from a pool of PD’s in Yuma) has a responsibility to defend you, to also try to get your charges reduced, or to at least work on your behalf. Just like the lawyer who offered to represent you for a fee.”
I delved a little further, to see if I could find a lawyer who might work more cheaply on my behalf. I found one in Wellton (less travel time I figured than the big boys from Phoenix) who, in a photo on his website, looked like a cowboy with an old pickup truck. His offer was also a flat fee–based one. For $1000 he would do the same thing as the first lawyer but also submit the paperwork to get the conviction removed from my record (which might take several months, he said).
My wife and I discussed it for a week or so. She made the point that Arizona didn’t want to have to jail me, monitor my probation, or rehab me. They just wanted to scare me and get some money. Having weighed all my options, I decided to save some money (that we didn’t have) and take my chances. I would return to Wellton to face the music.
My wife was nice enough to make the drive back to AZ with me. Early on the morning of my court date, we headed east toward Yuma on I-8. Déjà vu all over again.
Before we got as far as Dulzura, California, we came upon a Border Patrol checkpoint. The same checkpoint a month before had been casual. They’d barely slowed us down, waving us through at five miles per hour. Today, they were all business. They had a dog, stopped us for a moment, and when the dog didn’t respond, let us pass. So now, my friends, be forewarned that well before El Centro, as you head to Ocotillo or points east of San Diego, you might be stopped in a place you least expected to be. And those dogs have amazing olfactory skills.
We continued heading east, the day was beautiful with no traffic to speak of, and we made good time. At about noon, we reached the Wellton exit and looked for a place to eat. Court time was 1:30 p.m., and according to my watch, we had over an hour to kill. To frequent travelers on the interstate, Wellton used to be known as a speed trap, a section of desert where there’s so little to look at you might be inclined to go faster than usual. It’s well past Yuma and on the way to Gila Bend, Phoenix, and Tucson. These days, it’s got a slow, sleepy, agricultural feel that underscores all the activity happening on I–8 nearby. The Border Patrol seems to be the largest employer in town. Their headquarters occupy a mesa near the courthouse, packed with patrol cars and portable trailers for their offices, a virtual city.
Geronimo’s was the only place in town that looked as if it had any customers. It’s a small Mexican café filled with what I guessed was off-duty Border Patrol agents (the military-style haircut is hard to miss), and my longish hair, goatee, and sandals were a bit out of place.
We sat down to enjoy a cold beer, and as we looked at the menu, we figured that with the drive behind us, we were doing okay. We ordered lunch. The food coming to other tables looked really good. As I looked around, I noticed a small plastic clock on the wall. From across the room, it barely registered, but it looked as if it was 1:20.
I got up and walked closer to the register and asked a customer who was leaving, “Is that the right time?” “Yup,” he answered. Yikes. We had forgotten about the time difference between California and Arizona. So I asked the waitress to cancel our food order, and paid for our beers, and we scooted out of there and headed over to the court with minutes to spare.
The courthouse in Wellton is hard to forget. It is a series of trailers, built into a semi-permanent structure. The courtroom is about 20 x 20 feet, with a simple facade to mimic a judge’s seat and give a basic courtroom feel. The room was full when I arrived. An extra chair would be wedged into the room each time another defendant came in at the last minute.
Court got underway right away. Family members and visitors were allowed to watch and listen to the beginning of the process from the hallway. The judge explained the process: you would be offered a plea agreement that you could accept or reject. If you rejected it, you would offer a plea of not guilty and then be offered a chance to speak with a public defender about your case. At no point along the way would the judge or the prosecutor answer our individual questions. Having said that, the judge left the court, and the door was closed so that visitors in the hallway could no longer hear the proceedings.
The prosecutor was about 35 years old, trying to be very serious, with short buzzed hair, wearing a collared shirt and slacks from a Lands End catalog.
He explained that he would only give a monologue, no questions could be asked, and that he was simply there to do his job, to prosecute us in accordance with the law of the “Great State of Arizona” (it really says that on their state seal in the courtroom).
“There are people in this room from Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. The laws of your state do not apply in Arizona. We do not recognize your doctors’ authorizations or medical marijuana cards.”
He matter-of-factly explained our liability as defendants and that a possible sentence could be up to 180 days in jail, with a fine up to $4600 for each charge. “Do you understand the severity of the charges against you, the maximum charge, and the minimum?” (The minimum could be dismissal, but I think we all figured that was a long shot.) We all nodded, and he continued.
To expedite our cases, all for two counts — attempted possession of marijuana, and attempted possession of drug paraphernalia — the prosecutor was willing to offer a one-time plea agreement, which he could, at his discretion, withdraw at any time. Here was the offer: if we accepted the plea, the judge would drop the drug-possession charge in exchange for a guilty plea to the paraphernalia charge, with no jail time, no probation, and a one-time fine of $406.50, payable that day.
The prosecutor ended his speech, and the attending deputy reopened the door, and the judge returned.
The door was closed again, and the judge took over.
She explained to the first defendant that by paying the fine in full that day, he was eligible to have the petition to dismiss the guilty plea issued that day. Pay in full, and your guilty plea is dismissed from your record. She also explained that the court offered a payment plan that would add a onetime fee of $20 to the fine for a total of $426.50. The musician next to me, Nathan, whispered, “They ought to just make it an even $420.” The judge also implied that paying over time left her the option to possibly not dismiss the guilty plea after you’d paid your fine, and this would be totally at her discretion.
I should mention now that this checkpoint stop had yielded a broad range of people, from every walk of life, it seemed, people who happened to have a little pot stashed somewhere when they were traveling. It became evident that if it (the pot) was on your person (so that they could tell who it belonged to) that lucky pup would receive a citation.
Everyone was asked individually whether they wanted to accept the plea.
It looked like a no-brainer, but the shocker came when the first name was called. The judge asked the defendant if he wanted to accept the plea agreement. He said yes, and immediately the prosecutor stood up and said, “We withdraw the offer to this defendant.”
What? I was shocked. How did this work?
The judge and prosecutor talked for a moment. Then the judge asked the defendant, Do you work? Yes. How much do you make? $500 a week. How much can you pay a public defender? $200. I’ll assign you a PD, but you must understand that no matter the outcome of your case, you will have to pay a fee of $225 to him.
I believe that this defendant was in a truck with two friends, didn’t smoke himself, and it wasn’t his pot. He wanted to fight the charge. Had he resisted arrest or tried to run? Lied to the agent at some point? I don’t know. But he was going to be coming back to Wellton and was already out $225 for the lawyer, no matter what. But maybe he had a previous record or some other red flag that singled his case out from the rest of us.
So the guy said okay, and we moved on. The judge asked everyone the same questions, the ritual of: do you accept the plea, give up your rights to a defense, admit to blah blah blah. I heard all the cases. The most interesting part was when, as part of the paraphernalia plea, the defendant told her what it was (“it can be a pipe, papers, a lighter, a baggie, a container to conceal drugs, etc.”). Most people said either pipe or baggie, and the judge quickly wrote something down. The best story came from a handsome, young, dark-skinned guy, who said, “Paper crutch.” The judge looked quizzical and turned to her clerks. “Have you heard of that?” The two young women shook their heads and giggled along with the deputy. The gentleman explained, “Oh, it’s a Hawaiian thing for holding the roach.” Everybody chuckled, and we wrapped it all up. I headed out to pay the fine and wait for the wheels of justice to stop.
One aside: it became apparent that for myself and some others, because the pot was on my person and clearly in my pocket, I was the one cited. But I’m pretty sure there were several people in the courtroom who were in a car where pot was stashed, and all of the occupants were cited and forced to appear in court. There were three guys who’d stashed their weed between the surfboards on their roof. The dog still found it, and all three got citations. There was a 50-something mom seated next to me (and somewhat embarrassed) whose son, maybe 17, was looking at a criminal record and a fine, and I’m pretty sure the stash was hers. Once they understood that it could come off her son’s record, they signed on, paid both fines, and, I’m sure, fled from Arizona.
I will miss the colorful cross-section of people in court that day. The professional racecar driver who seemed embarrassed to be recognized by another defendant — “Hey I saw your last race, the one on TV.” Not a rock-star moment for him. One guy, about 45, looked like an overweight Slash from Guns and Roses, with a Tom Petty top hat and a healthy beer gut peeking out from under a too-small Los Lonely Boys T-shirt. A couple of guys wore ties (I had thought about it for about a second, then decided no way). There were three or four women, in their 20s or 30s, with heavy make-up (one with purple hair), and a really old guy with bowed legs and a bad back. There were quite a few people over 55 in the room too, a good indicator of which of your neighbors still enjoy an occasional puff.
I remember that when I had called the law clerk in Wellton, she’d said there were almost 80 cases scheduled for the day I went to court. Nobody there that day looked well off — we were all pretty middle-class. So I figure that the other 40 people cited must have hired a lawyer to work their cases. So maybe my numbers are off: It should be closer to $32,000 in fines every Tuesday for the court system, plus lawyer fees for 40 more cases (potentially another $40,000 or $80,000, but I’m just guessing).
I hope that my experience and this story informs your decision if you are caught in a similar situation, or shows you how to avoid it. Remember a couple things. A medical marijuana card won’t help you in Arizona, and when you cross over into Yuma, don’t forget the time change. One of the people in court that day got a speeding ticket on the way to Wellton because they forgot that you lose an hour when you visit “The Great State of Arizona.”
— Jeff Graham