On May 18, I wrote about four news stories that dealt with the law.
I concluded by recalling a passage from Dickens: "If the law supposes that . . . the law is a ass, a idiot."
Seven readers phoned and three wrote to tell me I had made two typographical errors. Apparently they thought I should have corrected Dickens and written, "an ass, an idiot."
City Council member David A. Clarke is too well educated to fall into that trap. But he, too, was unhappy with what I had written.
He phoned to complain about the portion of the column that I had based on a story written by a Washington Post staff writer. The story told of Police Chief Burtell Jefferson's criticism of narcotics legislation sponsored by Clarke. Jefferson favors mandatory jail time for all drug traffickers, and he was therefore critical of Clarke's bill.
Clarke said Jefferson was in error. He added that our reporter had chosen to ignore Clarke's briefings.
I told Clarke that if his bill had been misrepresented, I felt morally obligated to put his rebuttal on the record.
He said he would write out his objections and send them to me. His comments were sent to me on May 29 and received on June 1. Clarke wrote:
"The D.C. Controlled Substances Act, passed recently by the City Council, replaces the archaic D.C. Uniform Narcotic Act and the D.C. Uniform Dangerous Drug Act.
"Under the older laws, the same, low, misdemeanor penalty of a maximum of one year's imprisonment applies to all first narcotic and drug offenses whether they involve sale of heroin to a juvenile or simple possession of a cough medicine for which one needs but does not have a prescription.
"The new law, patterned after the federal law and laws now in place in 42 states, will create five schedules into which all known narcotic and dangerous drugs are placed according to the seriousness of the substances.
"The new law will provide a range of penalties based upon the schedules and the conduct. These penalities will range from a maximum 30 years imprisonment for distributing heroin to a juvenile down to a misdemeanor 1-year penalty for possession of a drug for one's own use without a prescription.
"Additionally, as major drug cases now are prosecuted in the federal system which is under the Bail Reform Act, the development of a strong D.C. law will make major drug offenders subject to D.C.'s preventive detention law.
"During Council debate, amendments were offered to provide mandatory minimum penalties for distribution. Neither the amendments nor the sections that they attempted to amend mentioned the word 'sale.' By a vote of 10-3, the Council recognized that distribution encompasses far more than sale, including -- according to the Council's general counsel -- the simple handing of a controlled substance from one person to the other, and determined to leave judicial discretion to deal with the ranges of culpability which might be involved.
"Both the United States Attorney and the Corporation Counsel, the city's major prosecutors, testified before the Council in support of retaining judicial discretion. Considered as a whole, the legislation passed by the Council represents a major improvement over the current law."
So much for the drug bill. But inasmuch as "judicial discretion" has been mentioned, we might take note of a ruling made last week by Superior Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr.
D.C. police narcotics detectives had been watching a parked car. A man and a woman were inside, a second man was standing outside the car. When the detectives approached, the man standing outside fled and one of the occupants of the car began to empty the car's ashtray.
After the policemen identified themselves, they saw a portion of a hand-rolled cigarette in the ashtray. Suspecting that the cigarette contained marijuana, one of the detectives reached inside the car and took the cigarette butt. Moments later, a gun was found in the car and another gun was taken from the woman's purse. Also seized was a quantity of material identified as marijuana by the police lab.
But Judge Kennedy ruled that the policemen had acted upon "mere suspicion" and therefore did not have authority to make a warrantless seizure.