“The defendant has requested her probation be modified. The application is denied. There is nothing in the order of probation which would prevent the defendant from serving people at the [rehabilitation clinic] if she feels so inclined. Her other requests are not within the realm of possibilities for amendment at this time.” –Judge Steven Burns
Her name was Justine. His name was Tony*.
Justine and Tony figured that they would be good partners in a lucrative business: selling marijuana. Justine already smoked to ease her mind from the dreadful visions brought on by psychosis, a severe mental disorder she had suffered from since she was 16 years old.
She was a sophomore at Nebraska University, where she studied forensic science.
Her business plan was easy enough; get the supply either from people obtaining weed from Colorado or with bitcoins on the Silk Road, have it sent to Tony’s house in discreet packaging, weigh it out, package it and sell. Tony and Justine generally stuck to selling to their friend group.
Recreational weed wasn’t legal in Nebraska, so trust was everything.
Justine felt safe with her clientele, one of whom was a customer and friend named Andrew*. Andrew had bought weed from Justine before. They even smoked together a couple of times. He texted her one day, asking if he could pass on a friend and client. Justine agreed to him sharing her phone number.
So he did.
Andrew’s friend JJ* wanted half an ounce of weed. Justine only had ounce bags. She weighed the supply at Tony’s house and sold JJ the ounce at a discounted price.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports that a first offender in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in the state of Nebraska faces a maximum fine of $300 with no incarceration time. The sale of any amount carries the weight of 1-20 years** in prison and a $25,000 fine. If a seller operates business within 1,000 feet of a school, they face 1-50 years.**
The latter is considered a class II felony, the same felony reserved for “robbery, human trafficking, assault in the first degree, and sexual assault in the first degree.”
Justine was quickly reminded why she didn’t sell to strangers. She could feel something off about JJ. He told her that he was a college student, going to school for a degree in criminal justice but taking some time off from school.
She only sold to him one time.
Justine was going through a private battle, finally going to a doctor and seeking help. She had received medication, and with it came a lifestyle change. Justine was ready to get out of the business with Tony. She also threw her pipes away, ready to give up smoking. Around the time of her decision, she had heard of a friend who had gotten arrested by an undercover police officer. She was happy that she had managed to get out.
Then she heard a knock on her door.
Justine heard a roommate answer and speak with a man for a bit. The conversation was soon over and the door was closed. Her roommate told her that a large man left his number for Justine. She didn’t know what to make of it.
Are you interested in making a deal?
Justine texted the unknown number, asking whose it was and how they came about her address. She didn’t get much of a response beyond, “Are you interested in making a deal?”
The situation was none too subtle, and she had assumed that he was an undercover police officer. She had contemplated meeting him in person to tell him that selling drugs was no longer her life. She instead texted him to let him know that she was no longer a seller, as it was the truth. But Justine did not know that it was too late. She had already sold an ounce to an undercover officer, JJ.
Justine was in class the day after she sent the text, when she received a call from a number she did not recognize.
“Hello, is this Justine LaViolette?” It was Nathan from the narcotics division at the police department. He told her that some officers needed to speak with her, and that she was to go back to her room immediately.
She texted her brother following the phone call. Her feelings were numb. The full weight of that phone call would not hit her until later.
“Justine,” said a man wearing a black beanie, who was waiting outside of her door with a few other officers.
She responded, “Yeah, that’s me.”
“Want to know how we knew it was you?” The man showed her a photocopied picture of her from Facebook, proud of his work.
“Okay” she said, slightly irritated. Justine had never been arrested, but she figured that there was only one route she could possibly take.
She opened the door to let the tiny congregation inside.
The officers asked to search her room. She agreed, knowing that she was not in possession of anything illegal. The only suspicious items in her room were the numerous plastic bags she kept to collect insects for her entomology lab projects. She felt violated regardless. The officers were emptying out her purses, picking through her dirty laundry, dumping drawers on the ground. She repeatedly denied that she was in possession of drugs, and she was telling the truth. The police never found anything.
Justine’s phone was taken away by one officer. Another placed metal handcuffs on her wrist. Embarrassed, she asked to be escorted out the back door. He kindly complied. In the car, they realized that they had met each other at a football game the year before. Unlike the officers who had searched her room, this one was caring. He told her that she seemed ambitious and hoped that she would be able to move on after this moment.
The ride was over and Justine was taken into a facility. Her strip search showed her that the humiliation was not yet over. She had to bend over, legs spread, while a female officer examined her body cavities. She was handed scrubs once the search was complete. She wasn’t wearing underwear or a bra. She was taken to a small holding room and elected to sit on the bench inside.
Nathan picked her up from the room and interrogated her. He told her that her case would benefit from his cooperation and that she would be released sooner. If she wouldn’t cooperate, they’d make sure to give her a difficult time. She felt pressured under the weight of their threats.
Justine told the truth about Tony and their business together. She was nervous, so she couldn’t recall every detail. But she did what she could.
Her phone was presented to her, and she was forced to give the passcode. In all that time, no one had Mirandized her.
She was allowed back to the tiny room following the interrogation. Someone brought her a phone, and she called her brother and her roommate. She was allowed more than one call.
Several hours later she was taken from the holding room, handed a bin with supplies, re-handcuffed and escorted to a jail cell.
Strange faces stared at her when she walked in.
(*Names have been changed for privacy)
(** Imprisonment dependent on enforcement of mandatory minimum sentencing)
The history of the War on Drugs
This story is part one of our feature on Justine and her journey through the criminal justice system in Nebraska. Her stories is a part of our series “Pardon,” examining the state of nonviolent criminal justice reform as the Obama presidency comes to a close.