Guilty as charged: Cobbs vows appeal in two-plant pot case
In a decision that sends a strong message that drugs must be rooted out at any cost, the Albemarle citizen recently arrested after a SWAT team found a pair of pot plants in his yard, Philip Cobbs, was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor possession in Albemarle General District Court.
"The court doesn't find it reasonable that anyone other than Mr. Cobbs planted it," said judge William Barkley as he pronounced Cobbs guilty at the close of the October 18 trial.
While authorities have declined to release an estimate, Constitutional scholar John Whitehead pegs the taxpayer cost of the operation at Cobbs' southeastern Albemarle property at at least $25,000. And having recently called for an end to the routine use of SWAT teams and America's so-called War On Drugs as threats to human rights, Whitehead directed his Rutherford Institute to oversee Cobbs' defense.
That came in the form of Charlottesville attorney Ned Michie, who argued Tuesday that Cobbs– allegedly feeling threatened by as many as ten rifle-equipped, flak jacket-wearing officers– couldn't have reasonably consented to the helicopter-assisted search of his land in late July.
As it turned out, the trial's tipping point turned out to be not the Constitutional search-and-seizure arguments– but something more mundane and yet surprising: deer netting.
Two of the five officers testified that the pair of marijuana plants spotted on Cobbs' property from approximately 500 feet in the sky were surrounded by plastic deer netting. If true, the netting would undercut Cobbs' assertion that the plants were growing without his knowledge.
In his closing argument, however, Cobbs' attorney Michie called the netting "not evidence" since the alleged netting was not mentioned in the written incident report, wasn't shown in any photographs, nor was its presence even revealed to the defense until the last few days before trial. Asked afterwards if he thought the netting story had been manufactured, Michie had no comment.
Client Cobbs, who spoke out recently in a Hook cover story and who was reached after the trial by telephone, says the the deer netting was news to him. But to the judge, it was a key point.
"It's not a Johnny Appleseed situation," said Judge Barkley. "It's not a situation where someone just threw out seeds."
Ironically, the prosecutor conceded that assembling the case presented challenges since the SWAT team neglected to preserve any photographs or to offer any physical or photographic evidence beyond allegedly seizing the two plants. As for the lead officer, he took a month to file the charge.
"They didn't think this case was a big deal," prosecutor Matthew J. Quatrara told the judge at closing.
Nonetheless, Judge Barkley assigned a 30-day jail sentence with all time suspended and ordered the statutory suspension of Cobb's driver's license. Cobbs says that if forced to forfeit his driver's license, he'll probably have to stop caring for his deaf and blind 90-year-old mother at home and put her in a nursing home.
Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lunsford, who remained at the prosecutor's table throughout the three-hour proceedings, defended the verdict as a vote of confidence in police officers who have a thankless– and often dangerous– job. The defense disagreed.
"Mr. Cobbs feels strongly that his rights were violated," said Michie, vowing to promptly file paperwork for an appeal.