Big Checks, Small Balances

by Bruce McEwen, June 2, 2010

The lawsuit against Bear Trucking is seven years old. In April a jury in Judge John Behnke’s court found the company had been negligent in a Mendocino County accident. The injured party and his lawyer stands to make a lot of money. The files for the case fill three hand trucks of banker’s boxes, which were moved to Judge Henderson’s court, making the place look like a rummage sale, and for the past month and a half, the settlement part of the case has been argued before a new jury.

The injured party is asking for $25 million, and a great many buzzards of the legal type are circling the case. The legal vulture, odious as he is, keeps the insurance companies honest. Without him widows and orphans would be so much road kill.

On Thursday, the jury went into deliberation.

I spoke to the plaintiff’s lawyer, Robert Shtofman of Encino. Shtofman is an officious little fellow who looks like Ross Perot, right down to the jughandle ears. He lectured me on the merits of his case, at one point interrupting his monologue to order me to stop taking notes and just listen to him. But I needed to escape to Judge Brown’s court where the Aaron Vargas case was on, but before I could do an end-around Shtofman he'd called Judge Leonard LaCasse “a stupid idiot.”

Encino Man said that one of LaCasse’s decisions meant that he'd re-file the case if the jury didn’t give his client the $25 million. The shipping container-sized case file is locked up in Judge Henderson’s court, but when the jury returns with the $25 million we'll know more.

Fresh from his recent appearance on ABC’s 20/20, and sporting a neatly trimmed goatee, Fort Bragg's Aaron Vargas was in Judge Brown’s court, but Vargas' lawyer, Tom Hudson, was absent so it was all put over another week. Vargas has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his childhood molester. The case has become a national cause célèbre, with public opinion running heavily in favor of Vargas. He will appear for sentencing at 9am in Courtroom B, Tuesday, June 15th. The national and even some international media are expected to be there. The young man could be freed with time already served plus probation or he could get as much as ten years.

Judge Leonard LaCasse can seem to adjudicate with more celerity than certainty; his harried manner keeps the lawyers hopping as it reassures defendants that they're going to get a fair shake from him. Unfortunately, the judge is retiring. He's been a good one. Lately, LaCasse’s court, Department G, has been handling the overflow calendar from Henderson’s court during the multi-million dollar Bear Trucking civil suit. LaCasse runs ‘em through like recruits in boot camp.

He called a matter on Thursday, and a lawyer was missing. It was “Mr. Hubley’s matter,” the defense attorney said helpfully, and Hubley was rumored to be out in the hall. “All it is is a pre-trial,” another lawyer said as if Mr. Hubley's no show was trivial.

Judge LaCasse said, “Let me put it this way: since I don’t want to sit here all afternoon waiting on you guys, I’m going to confirm it for Motions in Limine on June 10th and maybe you guys can talk to each other between now and then.”

The judge snapped a rubber band around the file and passed it to his clerk.

Joel Ramos was called.

Judge LaCasse said, “I’ve got a TAHL waiver signed by Mr. Ramos that says he wants to plea to a 14601.3, which is a habitual traffic offender. That’s the most recent case. And the People want 10 days on the violation of probation, and 60 on the felony probation violation. Is there a standard fine on the 14601.3?”

“Yes, your honor, it’s $4,750,” the Deputy DA said.

LaCasse was incredulous. “Is it really that much?” he asked.

It was.

“Okay, if that’s the standard I’m going to impose it,” the judge said. “It is what it is, I guess. Okay, Mr. Ramos, you’re going to get 45 days and that huge fine plus 36 months of probation. Are you okay with that?”

Mr. Ramos, perhaps groggy from the multiple penalty punches he'd just absorbed, said he was okay with it. Again LaCasse was amazed, and wagged his head in slow wonder. “So what’s your plea?” the judge asked.

“Guilty,” Ramos said.

“This is automatically a violation of probation, by making that plea,” the judge said.

Ramos said he understood.

Public Defender Dan Haehl was Ramos' lawyer. Haehl waived the follow-up stuff and Ramos was placed in jail forthwith. He's been in jail since May 15th and now he's going back until some time around Thanksgiving to consider how he's going to pay the great big fine plus restitution and conviction fees. Ramos did a comic yawn as his jail time and fines were added up, his expression saying, “How can I be more screwed than this?”

Haehl is a descendent of a pioneer Mendocino County family topographically memorialized in Haehl Grade in the Yorkville area of Anderson Valley. He was representing another client in Judge Henderson’s court. Henderson had squeezed the matter in during a break in the civil trucking suit. The defendant was William Colin Blethem, 24, and he was on for judgment and sentencing. His probation report was recommending a serious stay in the state prison, and the DA wanted the aggravated term of six years. Young Mr. Blethem’s mother was present. She’d sent a letter to the judge, but Henderson couldn’t find it. Fortunately, Mr. Haehl had a copy, not that a letter from a defendant's mom was likely to stay the heavy hand of the law.

Blethem had been convicted by a jury of swiping some jewelry from a parked car. He also had some prior run-ins with the law, including methamphetimine use, and an incident where he was convicted of mayhem for helping tattoo “thief” on a thief's forehead (a high profile case out of Fort Bragg a few years ago). Now it appears that Blethem's got himself a thief jacket, although his mother insists that he wasn’t the one who stole the items in question. She says Blethem’s friend was the thief but, she said, Blethem won’t say anything in his own defense because he doesn’t want to wear the red jail coveralls reserved for “snitches, bitches and cho-mo's.” (A cho-mo is a child molester.)

Blethem’s reticence in incriminating his buddy left his lawyer with a pretty shaky case to argue. All Haehl could argue was the meth abuse for a defense which, of course, not a bad defense since people do things under its influence they would not do sober. Haehl wanted to get the kid into a treatment program instead of prison.

“Your honor, Haehl said, “I think it’s (crank) a factor. And in the probation report, they didn’t actually give him credit for that. He’s quite young, and in his original felony he followed the lead of the others involved in the mayhem, the tattoo business. Then on the weapons charge, he ended up going to prison.”

As a felon, Blethem wasn’t supposed to have a gun, but he ended up with one, having picked it up “accidentally,” his mother said, with some other things from her car.

“I think he’s a salvageable person,” Haehl continued, “if he were given the opportunity. But if he is sentenced to the state prison there is the mitigating factor of his substance abuse.”

Deputy DA Shannon Cox rebutted: “First of all, your honor, he’s presumptively ineligible for probation. All Mr. Haehl has mentioned is the drug problem. But there is also the effect this crime had on the victims. Their safety had been compromised and they were terrified. Mr. Clark (the victim of the theft) thought he’d lost his livelihood. Although Mr. Haehl says the conduct was all one period of aberrant behavior; I do believe there was sophistication in his attempts to avoid detection, and I would urge the court to follow the recommendation in the probation report. The People would be asking for the aggravated term of three to four years in the state prison.”

Probation Officer Tim King said, “He’s been unsuccessful on probation and parole. I just don’t see him doing the drug program successfully,” he added, shaking his head regretfully.

Haehl said, “I didn’t see any signs that Mr. Clark was terrified. He has a rottweiler and remembered that if the dog had been out none of this ever would have happened.”

It does seem unfortunate that a perfectly serviceable guard dog was off duty when valuable jewelry was left in a car near the Orr Springs Resort. I know from my own experience with rotties (I used to own one) that all young Blethem’s problems in this life would have been over with if the dog had been loose. Which reminds me: What’s black and tan and looks good on a lawyer? A rottweiler!)

Judge Henderson said, “The court will sentence Mr. Blethem to the mid-term of two years. Given his age, history and conduct, I think this was a crime of opportunity. With only two prior convictions, I think the mid-term is warranted with an additional one year for the priors.”

Dan Haehl is a fiery fellow, who absolutely smolders with indignation at the injustices of the judicial system. “The police state,” he calls it. But in front of a jury he seems almost too polite. Shannon Cox, on the other hand, goes straight for the emotions. She's good with juries. Fortunately for William Blethem, Judge Henderson was merciful, but, the judge warned Blethem, “If you get another conviction, Mr. Blethem, you will get the aggravated term.”

The consensus around the Courthouse is that former prosecutor Keith Faulder is the best defense attorney available around here, although there are some very good ones you don't see as much. Faulder is known for his case prep. When most attorneys will assemble only enough to win a case, Faulder will assemble that much and then some, and only use the extra case prep if necessary as a case proceeds into plea negotiations or a jury trial. It’s this extra work developed from his years of trial experience, which gives Faulder his reputation as a lion among Mendo's legal lambs.

Last week Faulder had the famous medical marijuana advocate Dr. William Courtney on the stand. The hearing was as instructional as anything available at UC Davis, where my daughter went to medical school. For instance, the court learned that the first medical use of marijuana dated back to the 1850s when Queen Victoria sent for some bud from doctors working with the East India Company.

The good doctor produced a number of impressive-looking charts and texts, and at Faulder’s prompting Faulder seems to be Dr. Courtney’s honor student. The doctor set about describing the scientific reasons why marijuana is good for what ails you, whatever ails you, from lumbago to lupus. A chart reproduced from a recent issue of Scientific American showed the endogenous cannabinoids present in human cellular structure, and how the “introduction of exogenous cannabinoids” (i.e., smoking weed) increases the efficacy of the already present cannabinoids to aid in the prevention of a number of diseases, including diabetes.

At issue was the question of whether Faulder’s client had been in possession of an amount of marijuana consistent with a medical marijuana patient’s needs. That client, Mr. Angel Fargas, looks like he just stepped out of a Cheech and Chong movie. He and three other patients had been busted with about 70 pounds of marijuana.

Dr. Courtney testified that 70 pounds was nowhere near enough to supply the optimal dose of 600 milligrams per day for each of the four sufferers.

The expert witness and his pupil, er, lawyer were exchanging so much scholarly vernacular that the court reporter, who can take down 500 words per minute several times threw up her hands in frustration.

The nimble Faulder was always right in step with the doctor, soliciting definitions, spellings, and helpful acronyms to keep the technical terminology to a necessary minimum. But the pace of the back and forth accelerated as their shared passion for the subject overcame them, and it was difficult for the harried court reporter to keep up. I didn’t even try. I can't speak for the judge and prosecutor. They looked like they understood what was being said, but I found the silence especially out of character for Deputy DA Katherine Houston.

Ms. Houston had squared off against Faulder the week before in a similar case when Faulder had annoyed her so intensely Ms. Houston said, “Counsel is just trying to delay and frustrate the proceeding, your honor.”

Faulder had objected to her witness’ use of a text to identify drugs as “hearsay, your honor. The witness, Special Agent Jason Cox, is just quoting from a book, and I have no way to cross-examine a book or other document the witness may quote from.”

Oddly, Houston didn’t object as Faulder’s witness, Dr. Courtney, who did the same thing, quoting from a text — namely, the Scientific American article. After all, this prestigious publication is no less a text that can’t be cross-examined than the Drug Identification Bible sanctioned by the Department of Justice.

But The People held their peace and the testimony continued.

The 600 milligrams of cannabanoids (CBDs) per day dosage came from a patent by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. Of course 600 milligrams of THC would be enough to kill a draft horse, and probably even be toxic to a highly seasoned pothead. But, Dr. Courtney stressed, the THC is only activated when a patient smokes, bakes, makes tea, vaporizes, or otherwise heats the marijuana. In this form the patient can only handle 10 to 15 milligrams of cannabinoids before the effect becomes toxic. The best, if not the only way to get 600 mg is from the raw plant. Courtney recommended using a juicer. Adding the keefe, and other tricones from the magic plant, one arrives at hashish as a salve for topical use.

Faulder wanted to know how much marijuana would be needed to provide the dosage of 600 mg of CBD for a single patient. Courtney said it varied, but for Northern Lights, a much coveted Northern California strain of marijuana, which he had tested, one pound would supply one patient for 18 days.

“And are you recommending dosages in accordance with the US patent?” Faulder asked.

“Yes,” Courtney said.

“And how much cannabis would they have to produce to meet the required dosage?”

“Few people are in a position to grow enough to get 600 milligrams a day,” Courtney said.

“Yes, but ideally,” Faulder prompted. “How much in a year?”

“Well, if they were growing Northern Lights they would need 48 pounds a year, which would yield 219,000 mg of CBD. If you were growing White Russian, which has twice as much, you’d only need 24 pounds.

(Dude — go for the White Russian!)

“So how much would my client need for a year?”

“I think everyone should have 48 pounds,” explained Courtney, deadpan. “For the 600 mg of CBD, then five or six pounds for other uses, such as smoking as a distraction from pain, and eight or nine pounds for topical use.”

“So if law enforcement had seized 75 pounds… Would that be sufficient or insufficient for the needs of four people?”

“It would be insufficient.”

These startling numbers seemed to rouse Ms. Houston.

“You didn’t put that amount on these recommendations. You don’t put it in writing because it’s a flexible amount. Do you usually do that?”

“Yes. Especially because of access. People are fearful of growing enough to use in a juicer.”

“Just out of curiosity, Dr. Courtney, when you were talking about diabetes prevention, wouldn’t diet, exercise and weight loss also help prevent diabetes?”

The doctor chuckled reflectively and said, “With those three things we wouldn’t even have diabetes to begin with.”

“No further questions,” Ms. Houston said absently, perhaps considering the more austere of the two regimens for herself.

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