In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s tapping of Alabama senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Bob Marley fans and marijuana smokers, especially those planning a trip to Washington, D.C., should know about a quirky, overlooked judicial opinion issued by the D.C. Court of Appeals (on January 28 of this year). It was an odd case, just as likely to have been reported on by High Times as by Legal Times, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t.
In Brooks v. U.S., Associate Judge Roy W. McLeese III was blunt (and not at all hazy) about why Deandre Brooks’ conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia would have to go up in smoke.
First, Judge McLeese’s opinion sets out the relevant facts concerning the government’s case against Brooks for possession of drug paraphernalia, noting that the alleged drug paraphernalia in question — a grinder bearing Bob Marley’s likeness — was only recovered by police after Brooks was placed under arrest for assault on a police officer. McLeese’s opinion describes the police officers’ discovery of the Bob Marley grinder this way:
In a search incident to the arrest [for assaulting a police officer], one of the officers, a twelve-year veteran assigned to investigate narcotics and vice offenses, found in Mr. Brooks’s pants pocket “a metal grinder with a picture of Bob Marley that is commonly used for grinding up marijuana.” Another officer, who was assigned to the Narcotics Unit and had been involved in over 500 drug operations, testified that he had recovered grinders numerous times. That officer further explained that grinders are used to grind up marijuana by people who smoke marijuana, and that when officers arrest people with grinders, there typically is green plant material in the grinders.
With blazing clarity, Judge McLeese explained why Brooks’ conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia would have to be reversed for insufficient evidence:
[T]here was no evidence that anyone saw Mr. Brooks use the grinder [to process, prepare, or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance]. Nor was there evidence that Mr. Brooks made any statements suggesting an intent to use the grinder for drug-related purposes. Nor, finally, was there any evidence that Mr. Brooks possessed or used drugs, either at the time of the offense or at any previous time. Rather, the United States argues that Mr. Brooks’s intent to use the grinder for drug-related purposes can be inferred from three pieces of evidence: (1) the grinder bore the likeness of Bob Marley; (2) an experienced officer testified that people who smoke marijuana commonly use grinders to grind up marijuana, and (3) another experienced narcotics officer testified that he had recovered grinders numerous times.
Methodically deconstructing the government’s half-baked arguments to uphold Brooks’ conviction, the heart of the D.C. Court of Appeals’ ruling boils down to this:
In explaining the significance of the first piece of evidence, the United States argues that “the trial court was no doubt aware [that] Bob Marley is the late reggae superstar whose name is virtually synonymous” with marijuana. We assume for current purposes that the trial court may have been aware of a general association between Bob Marley and marijuana. At trial, however, the United States introduced no evidence that Bob Marley was generally associated with marijuana, did not ask the trial court to take judicial notice of such an association, and in fact never explicitly suggested that such an association exists.
One definite bud of wisdom to be drawn from Judge McLeese’s opinion in Brooks v. U.S.: Never judge a grinder by its cover.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. @SteveCooperEsq