A judge on Monday dismissed criminal charges against the former owner of a Palm Desert medical marijuana dispensary and his two managers, but prosecutors said they will appeal the ruling within 60 days.
Stacy Hochanadel, who owned the now-defunct CannaHelp, and his managers James Campbell and John Bednar, all 31, were arrested in December 2006 and charged with felony possession of marijuana for sale, transport and sale of marijuana and keeping a place to sell controlled substances.
Marijuana and financial records were seized at the dispensary, 73359 El Paseo, during a raid by Riverside County sheriff's deputies.
However, Riverside County Superior Court Judge David B. Downing quashed a search warrant used by the sheriff's department to obtain evidence against the three men.
Downing said following his April 4 ruling that he had concluded the defendants were in compliance with the state's Compassionate Use Act and operating a "legitimate business."
Downing also concluded that the affidavit in support of the search warrant was flawed because Robert Garcia, the sheriff's investigator who prepared it, was not adequately trained in handling medical marijuana cases.
The judge said that Garcia wrongly asserted the dispensary made a $1.6 million profit. Garcia later acknowledged that most of the money was used to buy more marijuana and pay expenses.
During a trial readiness conference Monday, Deputy District Attorney Richard Cookson told Downing prosecutors were unable to proceed to trial due to lack of evidence.
The judge subsequently dismissed the criminal charges against the three men because "there is no evidence in this case. I suppressed it."
Outside court, Cookson said his office would appeal Downing's ruling with the 4th District Court of Appeal in Riverside within 60 days.
"They clearly broke the law," said the prosecutor, who added he felt confident the appellate court would rule in prosecutors' favor.
Cookson said the appeal would be a "lengthy process" and could take as long as 18 months.
The defendants contend they were running a legal medical marijuana dispensary under California law, which allows marijuana to be sold on a nonprofit basis to patients with a doctor's prescription, although it remains illegal under federal law.
During a preliminary hearing in December to determine if there was enough evidence to order the three defendants to stand trial, Garcia testified that an undercover officer purchased medical marijuana on the premises twice for what he said was a back problem.
However, he also said CannaHelp tried to comply with the law and that the dispensary refused to sell to the first undercover officer who tried to purchase marijuana because the employees could not verify his doctor's prescription.
Garcia also conceded that the defendants never tried to hide their business from law enforcement and that it would be unfair to compare them to street-level drug dealers.
Following Monday's hearing, Hochanandel's attorney, Ulrich McNulty, said his client had an "excellent shot" during appeal because the affidavit in support of the search warrant lacked probable cause, and the sheriff's investigator who prepared it did not qualify as an expert on medical marijuana.
Bednar's attorney Phil La Rocca said last week the three men were willing to take the case to the California Supreme Court if necessary.
Pubdate: Tue, 06 May 2008
Source: Desert Sun, The (Palm Springs, CA)
Copyright: 2008 The Desert Sun
Note: Does not accept LTEs from outside circulation area.
Author: Amy Blaisdell
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?115 (Cannabis - California)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/mmj.htm (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/topic/Dispensary (Dispensary)