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Oregon makes drug possession a misdemeanor over prosecutor objections

Oregon makes drug possession a misdemeanor over prosecutor objections

The state of Oregon has made drug possession a misdemeanor over the objections of multiple district attorneys in the state.

The new law went into effect as soon as Governor Kate Brown signed it earlier this month. It makes most instances of first-time simple possession of illegal drugs — including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines — a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

The change in classification from misdemeanor to felony will have a dramatic impact on the maximum prison sentence that someone could face if convicted. Under the new law, the maximum term of incarceration is one year. When classified as a felony, the maximum sentences often ranged from five to ten years.

The law was passed in the hope of shifting focus from criminalizing drugs to helping drug addicts get treatment — and ultimately keeping more people out of prison.

“We are trying to move policy toward treatment rather than prison beds,” said state Sen. Jackie Winters, who supported the bill. “We can’t continue on the path of building more prisons when often the underlying root cause of the crime is substance use.”

Some law enforcement groups backed the legislation. According to the Associated Press, “Among the law’s supporters were the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, which said felony convictions include unintended consequences, including barriers to housing and employment.”

But the law enforcement organizations warned that the new law would only work if additional drug treatment resources were made available.

Prosecutors will still be able to charge drug possession as a felony if the person arrested has a prior felony conviction or two or more drug convictions. Prosecutors can also seek felony charges if the amount of drugs in question exceeds the law’s definition of “personal use” amount. For example, more than two grams of cocaine or methamphetamine, more than one gram of heroin, and more than 40 pills of oxycodone would not qualify as “personal use” amount.

While law enforcement voiced support, state prosecutors came out strongly against the law.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis, who spoke out against the law when legislators were considering it, complained that drugs possession was now being treated like shoplifting.

Marquis argued that prosecutors before could use the threat of a felony as leverage to force defendants to seek treatment. With the reclassification, Marquis says, that leverage is now gone.

“We know that people don’t seek treatment until they either bottom out or they have no choice,” Marquis said. “By making it a felony, it does threaten people with some consequences.”

Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny also opposed the law, saying that possession of dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine was too serious a crime to be treated as a misdemeanor.

“To change the classification of this behavior from a felony to a misdemeanor is tantamount to telling our schoolchildren that tomorrow it will be less dangerous to use methamphetamine than it is today,” Marteeny wrote.

But the numbers don’t appear to support the theory — or Oregon’s previous practice — of locking up this group of offenders. Moreover, the prosecution of felony drug possession in Oregon skewed heavily toward over-prosecuting and over-punishing people of color.

A study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that blacks were convicted of felony drug possession at double the rate that whites were in 2015. The study also revealed that Native Americans five times as likely as whites to be convicted of felony drug possession.

A 2016 report from the Sentencing Project found that Oregon has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the country for black males. Although blacks make up approximately two percent of the state’s population, they constitute 10 percent of the people who are locked up.

It remains to be seen whether, as state law enforcement has openly questioned, Oregon will provide the resources necessary to effectively move away from an incarceration-focused approach to a treatment-focused approach. And, further, whether the racial disparities that have marked Oregon’s treatment of drug offenses will persist.

Thanks to Jake Sussman.

Reform candidates come under attack in Contra Costa County District Attorney selection process

Contra Costa County Courthouse, Martinez, CA

Reform candidates come under attack in Contra Costa County District Attorney selection process

At two recent public forums, candidates to become Contra Costa’s interim District Attorney focused mostly on the degree to which their views and proposed policies aligned with Contra Costa County’s solidly progressive constituents’. But the selection process took an unexpected turn on Friday when local news outlets reported that two finalists — Superior Court Judge Diana Becton and Assistant District Attorney Tom Kensok — had failed to attribute portions of their applications to the proper sources.

Becton borrowed language from Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Kamala Harris’s recent New York Times column advocating for bail reform. Kensok pulled information from a Harvard Business Review article and also pulled material from implementation guides designed for violence reduction programs and mental health programs. Both told the East Bay Times that they should have cited the material, and that they weren’t trying to suggest the words were their own.

In Becton’s case, it is unknown who discovered the borrowed passages; several county officials said they received anonymous mailings alerting them to unattributed work in Becton’s application. Radio station KQED discovered Kensok’s unattributed work after subsequently examining the other applications.

In an interesting coincidence, both Becton and Kensok have emerged as the applicants most likely to shake things up in the office and advance progressive policies as district attorney. Both have voiced support for bail reform, reducing mass incarceration, and scaling back the use of excessive punishments within the county.

And as those two applicants have come under attack, conservative finalist Paul Graves, a deputy district attorney within the office, has benefited. After receiving the endorsement of a handful of private criminal defense lawyers, he picked up the endorsements of the East Bay Timesseveral local law enforcement units, and the Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney’s Association.

Graves would seem an unlikely selection for Contra Costa County, which has consistently voted in favor of criminal justice reform. Graves has consistently tacked to the right of the other four finalists in the competition to replace the disgraced former district attorney Mark Peterson, who resigned earlier this year after pleading no contest to one count of felony perjury after using $66,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

Peterson was sentenced to three years probation and 250 hours of community service. He also faces possible disbarment.

The Contra Costa County Supervisors now must pick a replacement district attorney who will serve until June 2018 when the next election is scheduled. The other two finalists are Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier and Judge Danielle Douglas.

All five candidates will appear before the Board of Supervisors in September. The five-member Board will then select the interim district attorney, though their method of selection remains unclear.

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Houston Police officers will not be tried over invasive body cavity search of black woman

Harris County Courthouse

Houston Police officers will not be tried over invasive body cavity search of black woman

Two Houston police officers who were accused of going too far with a roadside body cavity search after they thought they smelled weed on Charnesia Corley in 2015 have been cleared by a Harris County grand jury.

Deputies William Strong and Ronaldine Pierre were originally indicted in June 2016 after pulling Charnesia Corley over for a traffic stop in a gas station parking lot and ordering a strip search after they smelled marijuana in the car. Corley, who is black, has said the female officer who conducted the search penetrated her vagina looking for marijuana.

According to a federal civil rights lawsuit Corley has filed against Harris County, the officers ordered her to pull down her pants. Corley said no because she wasn’t wearing any underwear. A female deputy allegedly responded with “so?”

Police then took off her pants and shined a light into her vagina. Seeing nothing, the female deputy proceeded to do an 11-minute body cavity search that involved penetration.

“I felt like they sexually assaulted me. I really do. I felt disgusted, downgraded and humiliated,” Corley said to ABC 13 Eyewitness News.

Police officials said Corley was not penetrated and the officers performed “a visual strip search.” Police also said the body cavity search did yield 0.2 grams of marijuana. Corley was charged with drug possession and resisting arrest, but after reviewing the case prosecutors dropped all charges against her, calling the search “offensive and shocking.”

But the office of District Attorney Kim Ogg presented new evidence to a second grand jury, which cleared the officers earlier this month. It was Ogg’s predecessor, Devon Anderson, who originally charged the deputies.

Ogg’s office declined to say what the new evidence was, saying that the rules of the grand jury prohibited them from talking about it. Corley’s attorney said that evidence was medical records the state had always had.

That attorney, Sam Cammack, has called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to pursue charges against the deputies.

The chief of the Harris County District Attorney’s Civil Rights Division, Natasha Sinclair, told the Texas Observer that, although the charges were dismissed, it does not mean the office condones what happened.

“We don’t condone this type of search at all,” Sinclair said. “This is by no means us saying this is an appropriate way to conduct a search.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office had already cleared the two officers, and former Sheriff Ed Hickman expressed unhappiness about the original decision to indict. The office of current Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the decision to drop the charges backs up the Internal Affairs investigation that found the deputies violated no policies.

The female officer who actually did the search wasn’t charged because she was ordered to do it, Cammack said.

Corley has sued Harris County in federal court alleging that her civil rights were violated. That case is still pending. Courts have generally ruled that this type of body cavity search is only legal when cops can show that waiting for a judicial search warrant would result in the loss or destruction of evidence.

Ogg no longer prosecutes cases involving such a small amount of drugs, instead sending them to a diversion program.

A law went into effect in 2015 requiring Texas police to obtain search warrants before conducting these type of roadside body cavity searches. But critics say the practice still occurs and police do not face any criminal penalty if they violate it.

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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