Greg Moran, San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner took the unusual step this week of injecting himself into a federal criminal prosecution, encouraging jurors to find the former owner of medical marijuana dispensaries not guilty of drug charges if they believe prosecuting such cases is unjust.
Filner, a supporter of medical marijuana use who wants the city to adopt regulations allowing outlets to provide the drug, spoke at a news conference Monday outside the federal court following a hearing in the case prosecutors have brought against Ronnie Chang.
Chang faces 60 charges, including conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana and money laundering, stemming from two medical marijuana dispensaries he owned in San Marcos and Wildomar.
He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers have argued his prosecution is unjust because Chang was complying fully with California law, which allows medicinal use of marijuana. They’ve also said the case is politically motivated as federal officials seek to make an example of Chang.
While state law allows medical use of the drug in certain circumstances, it is illegal under federal law.
The Chang case is the latest skirmish between federal authorities and medical marijuana advocates.
In a statement released through Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, Filner endorsed a controversial legal concept called jury nullification.
This occurs when a jury acquits someone of the charges against them, even if they believe the person to be guilty, if they disagree with the law that the defendant is charged with. It allows individual jurors to follow their conscience, but critics say it violates the juror’s basic role — to determine the facts in a case and apply the law to reach a result.
In the statement, Filner said jury nullification allows the people’s “will to prevail.” He said that the concept “holds that jurors have a right and even a duty to vote their conscience if they feel the government is engaged in injustice.”
Filner attended a hearing in Chang’s case Monday afternoon. After the hearing, he said the case was “really an example of overbearing federal prosecution, maybe even persecution.” He noted Chang had complied with state laws, and that juries should “take the lead” in telling the federal government to back down.
“I’m saying public opinion and the laws of our local jurisdictions have moved in a direction the federal government has not recognized,” he said. “If the federal government isn’t listening to the mayor, maybe they will listen to the jury.”
Like other federal prosecutors in California, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy in San Diego has aggressively cracked down on medical marijuana outlets in San Diego over the last two years. Most have shuttered under threats they could face federal drug charges. Duffy’s office declined to respond to Filner’s statement about jury nullification on Monday.
Chang is not scheduled to got to trial until November.
The news conference followed a hearing that itself was unusual. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case against Chang, asked U.S. District Judge Michael Anello to issue an order prohibiting Michael McCabe, Chang’s lawyer, from commenting publicly on the case.
Local court rules restrict attorneys from extensively discussing the evidence or other elements of a case in the news media.
McCabe had criticized the prosecution of Chang in a video that was posted on the website of Americans for Safe Access in March. Among other things, McCabe said the case was brought to intimidate medical marijuana providers and was politically motivated.
In the end, McCabe agreed to abide by the local rules as the case goes on. Anello did not issue a formal order.