SSDP Holds First Event

The Students for Sensible Drug Policy welcomed Patrick Nightdale, former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney, to speak on behalf of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organization this past Thursday, October 29th.

As a member of LEAP since August 2010, Nightdale speaks publicly on behalf of the organization, especially on the failings of federal drug policies to contain and reduce the prevalence of drug use. He is originally from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he has been practicing law for over 17 years, and is also a founding member of the Allegheny County Domestic Violence Unit.

“Coloradans, Oregonians, Washingtonians have said in at least some limited aspect that, when it comes to marijuana use and possession, consumption and distribution, this policy has absolutely failed, ” Nightdale asserts. He explained that there are more incarcerated Americans (2,000,000 incarcerated, 10,000,000 with federal infractions) in the United States than there are incarcerated Chinese in China, a country with approximately 1.038 billion more citizens.

“[This policy] needlessly warehouses hundreds of thousands of Americans,” Nightdale declared. He furthered by asserting that these “wasted” tens of billions of taxpayer dollars could have better been utilized elsewhere, perhaps in reducing the 50% homicide arrest rate. In addition to wasted dollars, he argues that police departments have lost invaluable time that could have been spent on more urgent and ultimately more important tasks.

“It is the prohibition that has resulted in the creation of such a lucrative black marketplace, ” said Nightdale. He illustrates this idea by explaining how the war on drugs failed to contain the spread of Heroin in Pittsburgh, but gave rise to the efficient production of the substance in greater yields and with higher purity.

Nightdale also spoke about the reduction in legal rights for those who are punished for crimes relating to conspiracy to distribute drugs, and forfeiture of personal effects.

Mandatory minimums are sets of state or federal laws that remove a judge’s ability to tailor a sentencing to the circumstances of the crime; it sets a mandatory sentence as a “one size fits all” solution to certain types of case, including illegal drug charges.

Most charging prosecutors use these mandates to force defendants into plea bargains, even if their chances of lighter punishment are good.  This then strips the defendant of valuable legal and constitutional rights. More immediately, “If a mandatory is invoked, the defendant has absolutely no judicial review whatsoever,” asserts Nightdale. “These mandatories are employed in such a way as to do anything other than seek true justice. “

Nightdale was strongly opposed to the use of these mandatories, claiming that they violate the basic rights of defendants as well as their civil liberties, especially since they revoke a defendant’s right to appeal their case. However, Nightdale has noticed that on a national level, awareness of the brutal use of drug mandatories is becoming widespread.

“One of the shifts we’re having in conversation right now is that simply warehousing Americans for non-violent drug offenses has been bad public policy,” he sais. “We’re having bi-partisan agreement that drug mandatories for non-violent drug offenders are not working.” According to Nightdale, courts are looking for alternative policies to incarceration, including drug courts, to target the higher-ups in charge of manufacture and supply instead of low-level users.

According to asset forfeiture laws, police officers can confiscate a suspicious individual’s personal effects or other assets, including cash, vehicles, and even homes, with the burden of proving innocence, rather than guilt, is given to the individual who had assets seized. While this law was designed to give police officers a tool to damage the infrastructure of upper level crime, Nightdale contends that it is a violation of civil rights for individuals, as police can abuse this power against individuals who are too afraid to return to regain lost assets due to possible criminal activity, even if there was no warranted reason for the search or seizure.

“This is what happens to me when I’ve got a case with a drug mandatory, and a potential suppression issue – that’s when the police obtain evidence that may or may not have been unconstitutional,” he explains. The prosecutor will often provide a plea deal, which is tempting for defendants.

“They’re taking that deal and running, because otherwise the prosecutor will put them in prison for three years,” explains Nightdale.

Above: The Students for Sensible Drug Policy had a criminal defense attorney come and speak about  drug policies in America.

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