Stay Informed

by Oliver Conlon about a year ago in innocence

A Very Personal Experience of Misuse of Information in the American Judicial System

Stay Informed

At age 19, I was arrested for possession of less than a gram of marijuana—0.4 grams to be exact. Almost two years later, my suspicions of just how ineffective and exploitative the American judicial system can be were confirmed. At least to a degree. Without trying to justify the use of illicit substances, allow me to set the stage and give you some perspective.

I was always an adventurous kid, but despite doing certain dangerous things, I would always maintain a reasonable degree of safety. For example, I grew up in Costa Rica from age seven to age 15 which are some of the most important years of a child’s life, and I would always go out into the jungle by myself seeking adventure and trying to subvert my inherent sense of direction. In short, I would try to get lost in the jungle, but never could.

My friends would call me crazy and ask what I would do if I was bitten by a snake or attacked by a puma, but a couple rules I learned early on were that animals are more afraid of you than you are of them; and that if you make a reasonable amount of noise in the wilderness (or in a body of water) nearby animals will become aware of your presence and stay away. I would also bring a machete and occasionally my bow and arrow in case of emergencies, although I luckily never needed either. I realize this may seem like meandering, but bare with me.

By the time I moved back to Georgia from Costa Rica, I was 15 and had smoked my first pack of cigarettes, drank my first handful of beers and other canned alcoholic beverages (stolen from a friend’s parents who stocked up on booze and wouldn’t notice a few missing cans), and I had smoked my first couple tokes of marijuana. None of which really did anything for me. I didn’t have bad experiences, but never had particularly enhanced experiences that weren’t already enhanced by the feelings of sneaking around behind my mother’s back—and by extension: Behind the backs of other authority figures.

So by the time I was finishing my first year of high school in a new school in a different country while developing a new set of friends, I had pretty much experienced all I thought I needed to in the world of illicit substances, or at least ones that were illicit to minors. Part of my aversion to drug use was my love of punk rock, and a new friend who asked me to join his band on my first day at a new school.

The friend identified with the Straight Edge subculture of punk rock which is a rejection of the popular association of punk rock with drug use, including alcohol and nicotine, and in some extreme cases rejecting the use of caffeine and promiscuous sex. As an individual who has always been resentful of early mornings, I had already developed a healthy caffeine dependency; and though I had several years ahead of me before my first actual sexual experience with another person, I had no intentions of passing off the chance had it been given to me. Although I decided I identified with the Straight Edge ideology, I had no intentions on giving up caffeine or the pursuit of sexual interactions. This lasted longer than it did for some people of that age group who have a propensity to be in situations of peer pressure. My later experimentation with drug use stemmed from more personal and selfish purposes.

By the time I turned 18 and graduated high school I had undergone a harsh breakup (or what seemed like it at the time), rejection from the university to which my closest friends were all accepted, and the deterioration of my high school punk rock band due to creative differences and other external factors. I was under a lot of stress and experiencing symptoms of anxiety that I had only had in small doses beforehand.

Firs, I turned to cigarettes to calm my nerves. Soon after, stress had caused an inability to retain a meal without vomiting. So I turned to smoking pot to distract my mind, relax my body, and cure my lack of appetite—three things that the substance does very well. Later, to subdue my feelings of guilt associated with lying to my family about maintaining my Straight Edge ideals as well as the guilt of abandoning those ideals, I turned to the occasional experimentation with prescription pain medication. And lastly, to maintain my youthful sense of adventure despite my financial inability to travel and explore physical landscapes, I turned to the occasional exploration of mental and emotion landscapes by way of experimentation with psychedelics (mushrooms, MDMA, and acid). Alcohol was introduced at some point, but it was harder to get and was the least of my concerns.

By this point in my eighteenth year of life I was in a sort of whirlwind-like stupor of substance use, always tip-toeing the line of abuse without crossing it—at least that was my justification. I was doing dangerous things while maintaining what I though was a reasonable degree of safety. I was in safe places with people I trusted—often alone, but I trusted myself to an extent. To this day I have not tried cocaine, meth, heroin, or what I would consider “hard drugs,” although in retrospect I have developed the belief that prescription pain meds are just as bad, despite their legality.

One late night in September of the year I turned nineteen, I was driving around my old country town with my new girlfriend, and three close friends. We were all a little bit stoned and a couple of us had taken a small amount of Xanax, but we weren’t totally unconscious or unaware. Out of equal parts boredom and shared love of all things spooky, we decided to pay a visit to our local cemetery. For some reason it didn’t seem at all daunting or foreshadowing that it was across the street from the local police station. We spent about an hour or two wandering around and looking at different graves, chain-smoking cigarettes, and just conversing about a wide array of subjects as young people tend to do.

It is important to note, that by this point I had already had a couple run-ins with police officers. The first was when I thought it would be a good idea to climb the roof of a local abandoned building my friends and I would often break into. I was stopped by police and given an informal warning and questioned about my intentions which I chalked up to the boredom that comes with living in a small town. The second time, I was pulled over for speeding after driving home late at night (still sober at the time) with a broken dash light which made it impossible to tell how fast I was going. My family was gracious enough to pay my ticket for me. The third time, I had been smoking pot with some friends and on my way home was pulled over for a broken headlight. The officer searched my car after smelling marijuana on me, but found nothing. Anything illegal that I had was in my trunk, which I had learned they cannot search without a warrant. I was somewhat informed about the illegal activities I was engaging in, maintaining a reasonable degree of safety about the dangerous things I was doing.

As I’m driving my car toward the open gate to the graveyard, blue and lights began to flash behind me, seemingly coming from nowhere. They had to have been inside the cemetery because there was only one way in and out. We just didn’t notice them. After stopping, upon the officers request, we stepped out of my vehicle and he began his inquisition.

Why were we in the cemetery at two AM? We were bored and it’s a small town. Did we have any illicit substances in the car? Absolutely not (which was a lie, but how would he know?). It must have been a slow night because after a short amount of time another patrol car had arrived and a second officer began berating us with more questions. The second officer recognized one of my friends as the son of a military police officer. This will become relevant in a minute.

Officer #1 has confiscated all of our drivers licenses and had pulled me aside for further questioning. Officer #2 comes over and informs officer #1 of my friend’s father’s occupation and points out that his father might figuratively kill him if he finds out about the situation. So officer #1 gives me all of our licenses back, and as he is about to let us go, at the very last minute, claims to smell marijuana on my breath. I tell him that I’ve just been smoking a lot of cigarettes that night so that might make my breath a bit more pungent. He claims to know the difference between the smell of cigarettes and pot and asks if he can search my car. It is my right to deny consent to a search, but ultimately he has more power than I over the situation and does it anyway.

That moment of suspense is one of extreme intensity. I have not hidden my glass pipe and small baggy of pot very well in my center console, but he overlooked the console at first. But eventually he finds the stash and puts me in handcuffs, throwing me into the back of his car while making it very clear to him that I shouldn’t have lied to him and maybe things would have gone differently had I been more honest. As the second officer gives my friend my car keys and allows him to drive my girlfriend and our other two friends home, I apologize profusely and try my best to muster up some tears... but fail—which I would later associate with the trace amounts of Xanax residing in my system. Blue lights flash and a feeling of dread and guilt overcome my entire being as I unwillingly commute to my temporary holding cell for the night.

Now, if you’ve ever been arrested while high you’ll know how surreal of an experience it can be. It’s a near psychedelic sensation of sobering guilt and regret. There’s also a hope that it may be a sort of scare tactic and they’ll let you out with a warning after a while. That is seldom the case.

I was first placed into a single holding cell awaiting processing. I still had all of my belonging so I called my friend who had been given my keys, made sure everyone got home safely and asked if he could bail me out. He agreed, but the jail’s office wouldn’t be open for at least another four to five hours. I had no plans of calling family except for my uncle who had been in similar and arguably worse situations in his youth, but he was asleep. Shortly after I was processed, stripped of my clothes and other belongings, and placed in a cell with other offenders awaiting bail.

After about seven or eight hours in the cell I was finally able to speak to a bail-bondsman and eventually bailed out by my aforementioned friend. He was thoughtful enough to bring my girlfriend along so I was happy to see them both. Now, if you have never been arrested, or been close to those who have, you may be under the impression that once you are bailed out, you’re free to live the rest of your life unbothered assuming you don’t get into anymore trouble. Unfortunately, that is not the case. You are given a court date and asked to appear in court for further trial. This was only the beginning of my troubles with the American judicial system.

I dropped off my friend and girlfriend after we got breakfast and coffee, and had a chance to talk about the situation, and on my way home I called my younger brother and broke down in tears. How was I supposed to confront my family about this situation after lying to them about my sobriety? What would happen to me in the months to come after my first court appearance? Would I be fined an amount that I could not afford? Would I be then be put on a restrictive probationary period? Or would I be locked up again if I couldn’t pay or pass probation?

When I got home I was greeted by my grandmother who noticed I had been crying, but I was a good at covering my tracks and told her I had been in a fight with my girlfriend, but we hadn’t broken up. I descended the stairs into my dark room in the basement and made a failed attempt to sleep. Instead, I did some online research to not only try to give myself some clarity of the events to come, but also to find out if my rights had been violated as I believed they had.

After an anxiety filled month of dreadful anticipation, I was finally in court, waiting for the judge to call my name so I could plead “not guilty” and prepare myself for the trials to come. I was given with a court-appointed attorney as my part-time job did not allow me to pay for a private attorney and met with her on a later date to give her my statement recalling the events of my arrest. She seemed understanding and helpful, but it would soon become apparent that this was not the case.

When you are in the process of being convicted of a crime, you are not seen as a fallible human being, but as an immoral criminal, regardless of the severity of the crime. Judges, attorneys and police officers look down on you. Courtrooms are devoid of humanity, but the desire for the powerful to extort money and free labor from the powerless is wildly apparent in the actions, demeanor, and expressions of said powerful people. I was no longer a youth on a binge of experimentation and experience—I was a lost cause, a drug-addled criminal with no hope of a morally valuable future. But I was informed and resiliently hopeful.

Months of extended court dates interrupting the schedule of my new full-time job as a waiter in the city and rehearsals with my new band went by with seemingly no progress. My attorney would go into the court as my representative while I anxiously chain smoked on the bench outside. She would come out with no advancements in the case other than a date for an additional appearance in court a month later, which would later be extended by an additional month by way of phone call or mail.

After about six months I got an angry call from my grandmother who had apparently been contacted by my bail-bondsman after he made several failed attempts to contact me by phone. I broke down in tears and took the verbal berating that I had rightfully earned, but I somewhat softened the punishment by explaining my plans to deal with this on my own, like an adult.

Court-appointed attorneys are meant to uphold justice and serve their clients, but most have little allegiance to either, and serve the court that has appointed them. My plan was to get the dash cam footage from my arresting officer to use as proof that the officer had no grounds to search my car legally and to furthermore prove that I did not consent to the search. It would seem like a simple task as officers are require to document such footage and those dashboard cameras are designed to turn on automatically as soon as the officer turns on those notorious flashing blue lights that still linger in my anxious mind when I recall the events of my arrest. But according to the officer, the judge and my attorney, no such footage could be found.

At this point I had already turned 20. I was working an actual full-time job unlike the part-time job I had at the time of my arrest, was in a new punk rock band, and was going steady with my girlfriend. I had not stopped smoking marijuana, but was more aware of the consequences and expressed more safety when indulging in the habit.

This was a year after I was locked up and I was making plans with my father and his wife to visit them in Tokyo and meet their two sons for the first time. I had traveled a lot as a kid to visit family in Europe and visit my old friends and family in Costa Rica, but never been as far as Japan. So needless to say I was excited, but also worried that my court case would interfere with those plans. So I made a decision: at my next court case I would ask for a substance test of the items confiscated from my vehicle (the glass pipe and 0.4 grams of marijuana), and if such records existed I would accept the offer of a six-month probationary period.

Police officers are required to have a substance tested to confirm that it is a actually an illegal substance, but with something as common as marijuana that kind of procedure is often overlooked. Unluckily for me, at my next court date, the officer summoned the records and the substance they confiscated from me was, in fact, marijuana.

I was prepared to accept probation, but as my attorney slipped the sheet containing the substance test results into her manilla folder, I noticed a DVD inside the folder. The DVD was in a clear jewel case and marked in black sharpie on the blank DVD were the words “Dash Cam Footage” along with the date of my arrest. There it was. The piece of evidence I had been asking for was in my attorneys possession and she had kept it from me willingly. Conflicting feelings of betrayal and relief made their way through my brain as I scrambled to think of the right words to say.

“Is that the dash cam footage?” I inquired.

“Oh I guess it is,” my attorney said in a dishonest tone of surprise.

“Isn’t that withholding information? How long have they had that?” I asked in disbelief.

“It could be. Wait here. Let me talk to the judge,” replied my attorney as she walked back into the court room.

From my perspective, my attorney was covering her tracks. She had lied to me and knew that I was going to use that information to get my case dismissed. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s what it looked like to me. It was clear as day that she was working with the judge to get me to accept probation, pay the required fines, and work the forced community service.

My attorney and I were set up with a laptop in a private office to view the footage, and upon finishing the 40-plus minutes of video, she admitted that I may have actual grounds for the dismissal of my case as it became apparent that the officer did in fact wait until the last minute to mention that he smelled marijuana on my breath (when he had been talking to me for at least 30 minutes and would have noticed it prior). Despite this, she assured me that, in the judge's eyes, it would eventually come down to my word against that of the police officer who arrested me.

Although I was still angered, I was also relieved so I decided not ask her why the footage was withheld for so long. I just accepted the date of my next court appearance and went home.

Two months later it was the end of November and I appeared in court for what would be the penultimate time. I had plans of going to Japan for Christmas and was very hopeful and eager to be finished with this grueling legal process. I met with my attorney and she informed me that the judge had not yet viewed the dash cam footage, but offered to have my case thrown out if I could take a urine test and test negative for THC (the active compound in cannabis). Unlike other substances which pass through your body within an average of 24 hours, marijuana stays in your system for an average of thirty days. I had smoked earlier that very day, so I lied to my attorney and told her that I could probably pass a urine test, but didn’t want to risk it and ruin my plans of going to Japan the following month; so she asked the judge for an extension and he gave me until the first week of February, which was well over the 30 days needed to clear my system of marijuana. But I continued to smoke.

My trip to Tokyo was incredible. It’s a whole different world even for someone who has experience traveling. It’s absolutely gorgeous, the public transportation is efficient, the people are very welcoming and all have a strong work ethic regardless of their position, which is a surreal contrast to America where we’re pretty much known worldwide as being disgruntled employees. In addition to all of this, Japan’s drug laws are quite restricting and heavily enforced. Which meant I had the perfect excuse to get the marijuana out of my system before my court mandated drug taste upon my return.

I was visiting over Christmas time and on Christmas Eve my father threw a small party with some of his friends. One of which was a man from New York who had married a Japanese woman and had been living there for a while. I stepped outside for a cigarette with my dad, my younger brother (who was 17 and vaping at the time), and a few of his friends. The gentleman from New York pulled what looked like a tin cigarette holder from his jacket pocket and asked my father if it was okay for him to smoke. All of us were already smoking cigarettes so I wasn’t sure why he was being so precautious. Turns out he had a handful of pre-rolled joints and naturally my brother and i asked if we could partake. I asked how he was able to find weed in Tokyo and all he said was “I have my ways” in a secretive, but nonetheless, humorous tone.

It had been a few weeks since my brother and I had smoked and our tolerance was lower than usual. We were both a little bit “too stoned.” He retreated to his room to lie down and listen to music while I made feeble attempts at small talk with my father’s successful adult friends. After what seemed like an eternity, I announced that I was going to check on my brother. He said he was going to try to get some sleep, but I encouraged him to come take a walk with me around the city, reminding him that this may be the only time we would ever be stoned in Tokyo in our lives.

Although I was always able to maintain my sense of direction in the tropical jungles of Costa Rica, that was not the case in a densely populated foreign city with confusing street signs where I don’t speak the language, especially after a few drinks and a few too many tokes. We were lost in Tokyo, high and slightly drunk, but we didn’t have a care in the world. We figured eventually we’d either find out way back (which we eventually did) or someone would come looking for us. There isn’t a lot of violence or robbery in Tokyo so that wasn’t much of a concern either. I still look back on that hazy lost night bonding with my younger brother with great fondness.

We got back to the US on New Year’s Day of 2016. What would be my final court date was in early February. I felt I had plenty of time to get any remaining traces of marijuana out of my system. And although waiting for my substance results after nervously having to urinate into a cup in front of a police officer (it took several tries—I’m a nervous pisser!) it eventually worked out. My urine was clean from not only marijuana, but all substances—not that I had taken any in a long time—and my case was subsequently dropped.

This may seem like a victory on my part, and although it was a relief to finally be finished with the whole process, I can’t help but feel like there was more I could have done. I often feel as though I should have followed through with my case and pressed legal charges against, not only my arresting officer for abuse of power, but also against my attorney and the judge for withholding evidence and conspiring. I don’t have any proof that they were in fact conspiring together and withholding evidence, but perhaps I would if I had stuck with the case and hired an actual paid attorney and not one appointed by the court itself.

I can’t help but feel that my rights were infringed upon by a system that looks at non-violent offenders as criminals. A system that values profit over justice, and only seeks to condemn, reprimand and incarcerate, rather than help. A system that assumes that anyone who has ever broken a law is uninformed and ignorant of the laws themselves. But this isn’t always the case.

I don’t intend to use my own experience to preach about ending marijuana prohibition, or changing the way our judicial system operates. To some of you reading this I may seem like your run-of-the-mill burnout stereotype who began smoking weeks and turned to other drugs. Someone who is angry at the system just because I broke some laws and got caught. It should be known that while I still smoke, I do so sparingly. It doesn’t interfere with my job, or my hobbies, my passions. I don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money on it like many do. And most importantly my experimentation with other drugs has long since passed. That was just a small phase in my life.

As for the law, it’s not that I am angry at the system itself, but I’m saddened by those who work within the system who use it to their own advantage rather than upholding morality. I still research cases where people’s rights are violated and law enforcement abuse their power in order to profit and meet quotas. I make an effort to spread awareness to ensure the legal safety of others even while they are doing something dangerous. I no longer do as many dangerous things as I used to, if any at all; but when I do, I will always maintain a reasonable degree of, not only safety, but information as well.

Oliver Conlon
Oliver Conlon
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Oliver Conlon

Songwriter, singer and bassist for punk trio The Carolyn. Born in Plattsburgh, NY, raised in Costa Rica, currently living in Atlanta, GA

See all posts by Oliver Conlon