Prosecutor Criticizes U.S. Policy on Drug Prosecutions

Barbara LaWall, the County Prosecutor in Pima County, Ariz., says she was outraged when she learned of the Justice Department's policy to not prosecute marijuana cases that involve less than 500 pounds of the drug. Robert Siegel talks with LaWall, who says smaller amounts of drugs have an impact on her county.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As we've heard, Dennis Hastert, who was then speaker of the House, asked last July why the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona wouldn't prosecute marijuana cases dealing with amounts of less than 500 pounds. And assistant attorney general rushed to Charlton's defense. According to the e-mail, Charlton's office lacked the resources to pursue every marijuana possession case near the border. Furthermore, most of the border county district attorneys who are state, not federal prosecutors, bring cases concerning amounts of marijuana less than 500 pounds. But joining us is Barbara LaWall, who is one of those border county prosecutors. She's in Pima County, Arizona.

And Barbara LaWall, you admired Paul Charlton as a federal prosecutor but I gather you didn't admire the 500-pound minimum for prosecuting marijuana cases.

Ms. BARBARA LAWALL (County Prosecutor, Pima County, Arizona): That's absolutely correct. That policy that they had really imposes a burden. It's unfair to the local taxpayers to have to pick up what should be absolutely federal cases.

SIEGEL: Well, according to one of those e-mails about the U.S. attorneys, you and the other county prosecutors were actually prosecuting cases of amounts less than 500 pounds. It was an implication there of a policy that would take care of all such offenses.

Ms. LAWALL: You know, that's very interesting. I can't speak for the other prosecutors, but that makes it sound as if there was some kind of an agreement between the U.S. attorneys office and my office, and that is not the case. The answer is that yes, we did prosecute those cases because as a matter of public policy I thought it was important to make sure that people who were transporting huge amounts of marijuana should be held accountable.

SIEGEL: Well, give us a reality check here. In Pima County, Arizona, how rare or common an event is, say, an arrest and discovery of 250 pounds of marijuana?

Ms. LAWALL: Very common. There's probably an arrest on a daily basis of some case of large amounts of marijuana being transported in my county, and it's not destined for my county. Most of this stuff is destined for parts of the United States that are much further east.

SIEGEL: But at some point, you have to develop a practical policy about how much is worth tying up one of your prosecutors with a trial or with obtaining a plea and how much is worth letting pass.

Ms. LAWALL: Well, we haven't yet, and I hope we don't have to. The interesting thing about my office is we'll just suck it up. You know, these are not trial cases for the most part. There's litigation on motions with regards to the stop and the search and the seizure, and that's where it's taking my time and the resources. And it's also jamming up our jail, frankly. So this is really an unfair burden to the local taxpayer when this should be a federal case.

SIEGEL: Well, given that the state of Arizona has all the laws you would need to prosecute somebody for possessing 400, 200 pounds of marijuana, why is it so obviously a federal offense?

Ms. LAWALL: Well, it's obviously a federal offense because these are cases that are - the apprehension was made by Border Patrol or Customs or the National Park rangers.

SIEGEL: By federal law enforcement officers.

Ms. LAWALL: Federal law enforcement officers, and what they do when they apprehend a car now with 450, 490 pounds of marijuana in it is they make the stop, but they call in the local sheriff's department, who makes the arrest. Because they know that if they make the arrest, that the U.S. Attorneys Office isn't going to handle the case.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious about what kind of triage issues you prosecutors face. You don't have to make the choice between immigration offenses and drug smuggling because...

Ms. LaWALL: No, we don't have any jurisdiction over immigration whatsoever, so that is what has been driving this federal policy is that they have to make that distinction between, you know, using their resources to prosecute the border-crossers or to use their resources to prosecute the narcotics traffickers.

SIEGEL: So you're getting the results of the triage decision made by the federal prosecutors: If we're going to do this much on immigration, we've got to ration our resources someplace. It's going to be in drugs, in soft drugs.

Ms. LaWALL: Well, here's the burden for me is that we have to do triage, and our triage depends on whether or not we're going to be prosecuting drunk drivers, child molesters, murderers, gang-bangers, rapists, people who are stealing, burglarizing, committing auto theft, and we have a huge number of cases that the federal prosecutors don't deal with at all.

SIEGEL: Well Ms. LaWall, thank you very much for talking with us about it today.

Ms. LaWALL: You're very welcome, bye-bye.

SIEGEL: That's Barbara LaWall, who is County Prosecutor in Pima County. That's Tucson, Arizona.

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