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Policy reducing defendants' charges if they make payment both lauded, called extortion

  • 6/19/2008: A7: Cut marijuana plants are loaded into a pickup for removal after Wednesday's raids, which were carried out by 20 law enforcement officers from three agencies.
    PC: Cut marijuana plants are loaded for removal and burial after Mendocino County Sheriff deputies and DEA agents raided homes used for marijuana cultivation in Willits Wednesday June 18.

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster has been busy since taking office in January, dealing with campaign promises and implementing new practices that are raising funds and eyebrows.

One of his most novel and controversial moves has been to allow people charged with felony marijuana cultivation to plead guilty to misdemeanor possession if they agree to pay a $50-per-plant eradication fee to law enforcement agencies. The defendants also are placed on probation for two years and sentenced to 100 to 200 hours of community service, depending on the number of plants they were growing.

The program is being hailed as progress by some and reviled as an extortion by others.

"There are a lot of mixed feelings," said Jim Hill, a member of the Mendocino Medical Marijuana Advisory Board. He believes the new program is a good compromise.

So far, at least 31 people — all involved in cases that have lagged from years prior — have taken the deal and paid the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office more than $117,000.

If those defendants later want to grow medical marijuana, they will be required to buy medical marijuana zip ties from the Sheriff's Office at $50 per plant. The ties — optional for everyone else — prove the plants are certified for medical use.

It's a boon to the cash-strapped Sheriff's Office, which increasingly is relying on drug-related funds to balance its budget. It's hoping to raise more than $500,000 next year through a medical marijuana permitting program. This year it used about $450,000 in drug-related asset forfeiture funds to pay for overtime.

Those eligible for Eyster's new plea deals generally are first-time offenders and people who may have been planning to become legal by obtaining medical marijuana credentials, Eyster said. Profiteers and trespass growers are not eligible, he said.

The agreements not only generate income for law enforcement, they save the District Attorney's Office time and money, he said. They also save the defendants legal fees, Eyster said.

"It's a win-win program," he said.

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