Cobbs discusses his case with the Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead, who has some Fourth Amendment concerns about SWAT team use in a two-plant pot bust.
The Cobbs case was the subject of a Hook cover story last fall.
In a case closely watched by civil liberties groups and law enforcement, Philip Cobbs was found not guilty of possession of marijuana in a day-long jury trial.
Cobbs, a 54-year-old who takes care of his elderly mother, was arrested last summer after a marijuana eradication helicopter flew over his southeastern Albemarle home and spotted two pot plants near his house. A team of approximately 10 law enforcement agents drove up bearing semi-automatic weapons and confiscated the illegal plants. A month later, he received a summons to court.
His case was taken up by the Albemarle-based Rutherford Institute, which focuses on Constitutional issues. Cobb was convicted of possession in October, and appealed the case.
"I feel like justice finally was done," said Cobbs after a seven-person jury deliberated for about two hours– including a dinner of Domino's pizza– July 18.
Cobbs maintained that he didn't know the plants were growing in an overgrown area in his backyard.
Arguments revolved around whether Cobbs was expressing surprise or admission when he remarked to one of the gun-toting officers that he didn't think such an effort would be waged against such a small amount of contraband.
"It's not the crime of the century folks," Albemarle prosecutor Matthew Quatrara acknowledged in his closing. "But it is the law."
With a majority of Americans now saying they don't think pot should be illegal– 56 percent, according to a recent Rasmussen survey– the prosecution demanded that the jury entertain no effort to practice nullification. Prior to opening arguments, the judge dismissed six potential jurors– including five of the first 13 interviewed– for revealing a disinclination or refusal to convict someone of pot possession.
"The law does not permit you to invalidate your finding of guilt," prosecutor Quatrara reminded jurors in his closing argument, "based on your disagreement with the the law."
He added that disapproval with police tactics was another invalid reason reason for acquittal. (The firepower, he noted, may stem from the uncertainty of any drug bust; as for a helicopter, he called that "an efficient way to see marijuana.")
In the end, according to at least one juror, it boiled down to reasonable doubt and not to an example of jury nullification.
"We stuck to the facts," said juror Jeannette Kerlin, a former Scottsville town councilor. "I don't agree with the law, but that doesn't mean I don't abide by it."
Citing the lack of photographic evidence from police, which offered up one picture of two pot plants, but none of the deer netting and stakes they said surrounded the plants, Kerlin said, "I personally did not believe that the prosecution proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt."
The jury instructions noted that a conviction required that Cobbs had "dominion" over the plants.
"They never proved that he had dominion over those plants," said Kerlin. "Mr. Cobbs has a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old son, and they have friends over there. Did Mr. Cobbs actually know about it? Dunno."
According to Kerlin, two members of the jury were initially leaning toward conviction, but after presentations of everyone's thoughts, they reached unanimity with "a lot of talking" and "no arguing."
"The jury worked extremely hard for not quite two-and-a-half hours on a very difficult case," prosecutor Quatrara said after the verdict.
"I think they looked at the evidence," said defense attorney Andrew Sneathern.
"This is a good victory for Albemarle County," says John Whitehead, the Rutherford Institute founder, who objects to law enforcement flying over houses looking for pot plants when the Bill of Right guarantees that that citizens shall not be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures and that searches require warrants from the court.
"Make these guys go after a warrant," says Whitehead. "They ran roughshod over the Fourth Amendment. Drones are next."
"The jury system works," Whitehead adds. "The best way to win a case is with the jury system of your peers."
Whitehead says he remembers asking Cobbs the first day Cobbs came into his office why he was fighting the charge. "He said," relates Whitehead, "It just wasn't right."
This posting originally consisted just of the sidebar on the difficulty of seating a jury until around 10:30pm when this story about the acquittal was uploaded.–editor
Updated July 22 with Rasmussen survey results that 56 percent of Americans support legalization and regulation of marijuana.