Virginia Drug Possession Case Highlights Flawed Drug War Policies

In a local case exemplifying changing attitudes on the War on Drugs, a jury found a farmer in Albemarle County not guilty of marijuana possession on Wednesday evening.

54-year-old Philip Cobbs was summoned to court to answer for two marijuana plants spotted on his 37-acre farm by a helicopter. About 10 law enforcement officials came to his farm to confiscate the illegal plants, armed with semi-automatic guns. Cobbs claimed that he was not aware of the marijuana plants on his property, which can sometimes grow in the wild.

The plants were discovered by a task force of law enforcement officials that routinely flies over farms searching for marijuana. Cobbs’ attorneys, Paul Belonick and Andrew Sneathern, unsuccessfully contested in a pre-trial motion that these helicopter flyovers violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

Sneathern, pointing out that the task force uses National Guard helicopters, protested, “We’re treating our citizens like they’re the enemy.”

As Sneathern noted, Virginia law dictates that anyone found guilty of a first offense of marijuana possession must have their drivers license revoked without exception.

While the jury ultimately found Cobbs not guilty, it took half a day to find 7 people out of 25 who were neutral enough on drug laws to serve as jurors. Many potential jurors had to be dismissed because of their strong disagreement with national marijuana laws.

Sneathern, who in the past has prosecuted drug possession cases for the Commonwealth, observed that the law is still “playing catch up” to “a massive sea change in public opinion about small amounts of marijuana.”

Support for marijuana legalization is currently at an all-time high of 56 percent, according to a Rasmussen poll released in May. 15 states and several cities have reduced penalties for marijuana possession; recently, Chicago decriminalized small amounts of marijuana.

The prosecutor’s closing statement warned the jury against nullification, which allows jurors to find a defendant innocent because of their dislike of a law. Most judges prevent defense attorneys from informing the jury of this right. New Hampshire passed a jury nullification law in June, a move that could significantly affect drug cases in the state.

In Virginia, Sneathern hopes that lawmakers and prosecutors all over the Commonwealth keep Cobbs’ trial in mind for future prosecutions.

“This is not a good use of their resources,” he said. “This was an extraordinarily expensive trial for them to bring when the best outcome they were going to get was a maximum of 30 days [in prison], and likely just a fine.”

He also questioned the non-financial cost of frightened citizens: “This is over in the sense that this case is over, but as [Cobbs] told me yesterday, it will take him a long, long time to get over the feeling of the invasion and the fear that he felt — and still feels every time he sees a helicopter fly over his house.”