Photo by Steve Baker
By Diana Lejins, Contributing Writer
On April 17, exhausted but jubilant, medical cannabis collective business partners Joe Grumbine and Joe Byron walked away free men from the new Long Beach Courthouse, ending a five-year legal nightmare.
In a surprise move, Deputy District Attorney Jodi Castano announced that the District Attorney’s office had decided not to pursue the case.
Judge Arthur Jean, who originally set bail at $560,000 in December 2010 — an amount higher than for many violent offenders such as rapists, murderers and child molesters — presided.
“Dismissed,“ quickly responding Jean said.
The duo was freed and all criminal charges against the duo were “thrown out”.
The judicial nightmare began in December 2008, when Grumbine was transporting medical marijuana to supply his dispensary.
Police officers pulled him for a routine traffic stop in Riverside. And, after smelling marijuana, the officer searched his car. Grumbine was arrested. A Riverside County judge found Grumbine to be totally compliant with California laws and dismissed the charges. The magistrate ordered all of Grumbine’s property to be returned.
Entrapment and SWAT
From October through December 2009, several undercover Long Beach Police Department officers presented “legitimate” physician’s recommendations to the dispensaries for membership.
Clinic employees verified the physicians and their licensure standing. Additionally, the “patients’” identifications were checked for residency and currency. The police officers signed the collective agreements and obtained less than a sum total of two ounces of medical cannabis within 12 visits. For each literal entrapment, the Joes were eventually charged with separate felonies.
On December 2009 more than 120 armed police officers from Long Beach, Los Angeles and Orange County descended on multiple locations citing that there were criminal enterprises taking place.
In a SWAT-style raid, complete with machine guns, helicopters, and military dogs, they arrested 17 people, including legitimate disabled patients. They seized the contents of three dispensaries and two grow sites, plus many items from residences and other unconnected business locations. The arrestees were subjected to full-cavity body searches and kept overnight before being released with no charges filed. At all clinic sites and both men’s homes, SWAT teams ransacked with abandon.
Besides destroying numerous items such as surveillance cameras and knocking down doors that were not locked, they pointed assault weapons at Grumbine’s terrified wife and daughter, and handcuffed them for hours. (No charges filed.)
Grumbine said that Los Angeles Police Detective Salb told them that they “should all be put down like animals.”
“The place (home) looked like a bomb had gone off,” Grumbine said.
About $32,000 in cash was confiscated from all of the locations searched. This included the dispensaries and homes of both Joes, employee and volunteer homes, their personal bank accounts, patients and their homes, and unrelated businesses—owned many years prior to the clinics. The two received a note 30 days later stating that the money was sent to “asset forfeiture,”,a black hole created by the government to swallow up monies and assets to fund more military-style equipment and raids. They ultimately nabbed a California Highway patrolman, whose wife was employed at a clinics. While the officer was placed on administrative leave for nine months, he was eventually exonerated.
“They even eat their own,” Grumbine said .
Grumbine said that after trashing his house, storage sheds and the entire garden nursery, the police left human feces in all three toilets of his home. In the end, all they found was a small amount of Grumbine’s personal medications and a scale that his wife used to weigh bee’s wax. At one of the dispensaries, officers wrote “Merry Xmas.”
Prior to this precarious predicament, neither Grumbine, a peaceful organic gardener and nurseryman for botanic plants, nor Byron, a small restaurant owner, had never been arrested or charged with any crime. Both men were helping friends with cancer when their interest sparked in medical cannabis. They opened their clinics during the years 2008-2009, complying with California Attorney General guidelines and state law, paying taxes, and providing medicine to sick patients. In the spirit of compassionate use, Byron and Grumbine often gave medicine to people who couldn’t afford it. They spent a great deal of time with patients, providing food, clothing, wheelchairs and help with obtaining gainful employment. They built wheelchair ramps and gave bus passes to those who couldn’t afford to drive.
In Nov 2010 Grumbine and Byron rejected a felony plea deal and were charged in December with bails set at $240,000 and $320,000, respectively.
Grumbine was charged with multiple counts of sales of a controlled substance and electricity theft. The theft charge was quickly dropped. Byron was charged with sales of a controlled substance, tax evasion and electricity theft. The electricity debacle was eventually found to be an error made by a hired construction worker. Throughout their ordeal, they persistently refused to plea bargain and steadfastly maintained their innocence.
In November 2011, Judge Charles Sheldon granted the prosecution’s motion to deny a medical defense for Grumbine and Byron. But, in a very unusual move, the 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendants and their medical defense was allowed. Defense attorneys, Chris Glew and Allison Margolin requested a few days to subpoena witnesses in preparation of their newly granted defense, but Sheldon denied the request and the trial proceeded. Further hampering the defense team, Sheldon issued a gag order prohibiting them from speaking to the press.
The medical marijuana community rallied behind Grumbine and Byron. On the 18-day trial, the courtroom was filled with passionate supporters. Peaceful protestors gathered and picketed outside the Courthouse.
“Those people gave me strength to stay the course,” Grumbine said .
The trial ended up being fraught with questionable actions or inactions by Sheldon.
When the jury came back after a day of deliberation with guilty verdicts on all counts, defense council charged that the court was biased and that due process was denied. Declarations from numerous courtroom observers and articles from OC Weekly Magazine describing the numerous miscarriages of justice witnessed during the court proceedings were submitted for scrutiny. In addition, a copy of an inappropriate letter from Sheldon to Deputy District Attorney Jodi Castano was included.
In January 2012, to the astonishment of a packed courtroom, Sheldon admitted that he had acted inappropriately and recused himself, but he refused to lift the gag order. Sheldon allowed the defendants to remain out of custody on bail.
The case was forwarded to Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani, who ordered defendants Grumbine and Byron to return in April 2012. Cassani overturned the jury verdict stating that in her many years on the bench she had never seen such a “terrible trial.” She continued on to illuminate the many violations of due process and blatant biases. Judge Arthur Jean was selected to hear the new trial. Lawyer J. David Nick stepped in to defend Byron and public defender John Steinberg was appointed to represent Grumbine.
In February 2014, the District Attorney’s lawyer argued in the 2nd District Appellate Court that Cassani had no jurisdiction to issue her ruling. The panel sided heavily with the defendants and granted the new trial. On April 17, the District Attorney’s Office stated that due to the length of time, the appellate court ruling and changes to the law, they decided not to move forward with the case.
“I am sort of in disbelief after five years of hell,” Grumbine lamented in an exclusive interview. “I’m broke and beat up, but sure glad to get it behind me. I don’t know if I will ever recover financially. This whole thing started out as a perfect storm with District Attorney Steve Cooley running for attorney general and publicly stating that he’s going to get rid of all these dispensaries. It was clearly politically motivated…. If we would have been able to present a proper defense, the jury would have never convicted me. Long Beach spent over 5 million taxpayer dollars in this fiasco. I just want my life back and the things that they stole.”
The Silver Lining on a Black Cloud
As a result of his devastating experience, Joe Grumbine founded the Human Solution to help others in this same type of predicament—that of complying with state laws but being persecuted in spite of it.
More than 90 percent of all cases are settled in plea bargains, where innocent citizens waive their rights because of extremely excessive bail amounts and for fear of losing their children and/or being imprisoned for life, Grumbine said. The non-profit, grassroots organization focuses on this kind of legal harassment as a civil liberties matter. The group has grown into more than 25 U.S. chapters, plus one in Canada. They help prisoners locked up for cannabis charges and support all defendants willing to stand up for their rights.
“When enough of us stand up and demand due process, this will all come to an end,” Grumbine summarized.
The Human Solution can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling at (951) 436-6312.