A man is being charged with a felony for selling $5 worth of marijuana to undercover officers, King County Superior Court records show, even though he never offered to sell any pot in the first place. Only after being lured with cash did the defendant agree to sell a joint.
According to records filed in January by the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office, the incident began when two King County Sheriff's deputies—Officer Escobar and Officer Schwab—boarded a Metro line last July in Tukwila for "a covert bus ride." A 51-year-old black man who will remain nameless had also boarded the bus and struck up a "casual conversation" with one of the officers. That officer spontaneously brought up the subject of pot: "Detective Schwab told [the man] he was looking for marijuana." According the the report, the man asked how much marijuana the undercover officer wanted (it must be noted that this part of the report seems odd, because, as you will see, the man shows no interest in selling marijuana nor has marijuana packaged for sale). After Detective Schwab said he wanted to buy $20 worth of pot, the man "told Detective Schwab that he only had a joint." But the man did not offer to sell the joint, rather, he "offered to share it with Detective Schwab at the next bus stop," the report continues. "Detective Schwab declined to smoke with him but offered to purchase the marijuana cigarette from him to smoke later."
Finally, the man "agreed" to sell his joint for $5, the report explains, and officers arrested him. He reportedly told them that he "does not sell drugs and was only going to use the money to get to Tacoma."
I followed up today by calling the sheriff's and prosecutor's offices to ask about this case—did this advance public safety, was it a prudent and ethical use of resources? After all, here was a man who, despite a record for several low-level thefts in his lifetime, didn't bring up the subject of marijuana and didn't try to sell any.
"We don't necessarily know that he [was not trying to sell marijuana]," King County Sheriff's Department sergeant Cindi West told me. "It's kind of semantics here," she added, saying that when the suspect asked how much marijuana the officers wanted that it potentially indicated he was trying to sell drugs on the bus. "When it comes to Metro safety, smoking in a bus or near a bus, the deputies enforce that. In the big of scheme of things, it is not murder or robbery, but for people riding, day in day out, out these are the things that keep people safe on the bus." Then I asked how paying undercover cops to badger this man to sell his joint made buses safer—and something weird happened.
The line went dead.
Just as I reached Sergeant West again by phone at 1:15 p.m., an e-mail arrived from the prosecutor's office. "The charge will be dismissed," wrote prosecutor's office spokesman Dan Donohoe.
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention," Donohoe said when I called him. "We had a short discussion here and decided that the charge would be dismissed and that will likely happen this afternoon." He said that charging this as a felony was inconsistent with Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana last fall.
What's interesting, though, is that this case was already brought to the prosecutors' attention—they were the ones who filed a felony charge last month. What was brought to their attention is that the media cares about this. Not just because marijuana is legal. I-502 doesn't legalize person-to-person delivery of marijuana until regulations are in place this December, so that point is legally moot. The problem with this case is it shows law enforcement creating a crime where one didn't exist, manipulating a situation and apparently entrapping someone to turn a low-level possession offense into a serious felony. Under duress, many people could be pressured into selling a tiny amount of marijuana for $5. I don't want to pat myself on the back here—any reporter could have done this—but this case withered because it couldn't withstand public scrutiny.
That King County is using its police resources this way—and that the prosecutor would dignify it by charging this as though it's a legitimate case—is indefensible. When King County comes bleating to voters every couple of years about how it needs more money for cops and prosecutors, they need to convince us they use resources prudently. And this was a wasteful abuse of law enforcement resources.
Given that the charges are being dropped, I asked Sergeant West about this these tactics. "With the passage of I-502," she explained, "things have changed. You will see and that we will be doing different types of enforcement."