By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Thirty years ago, Stephen Hale was arrested for possessing marijuana. Three years ago, his law license was suspended for delivering it. Now the Galveston County district attorney is retiring, so Hale is running for that office on a platform to free the weed.
Legally, he can't refuse to prosecute such cases -- but he can promise users he will drop their misdemeanor marijuana charges. Hale handed out four flyers declaring his high hopes on the steps of the Texas City courthouse before the cops called to see if he was serious.
Hale, 49, drives a dark blue Chevy with Mardi Gras beads hanging on the rearview mirror. His face is sunburned from surfing every time the tide is high. Call in the middle of the afternoon and he's home watching Springer.But there's one difference between him and typical fringe candidates: This guy has experience as an elected public official.
Born in Dallas, Hale started getting stoned the summer of '69 with his cousin Billy Jack. His use increased after he got drafted. "It made the army a whole lot easier to tolerate," Hale says. He was busted in Walton County, Florida, after picking up a package of pot "for a friend" at the bus station. The arresting officer didn't immediately take Hale's billfold or get his name, so Hale decided to escape. "I was a soldier," he says. "I was trained to escape, evade and survive." He jumped out of a second-story window, vaulted a fence and started running.
"There were police everywhere," Hale says. "I ended up getting pinned in a swamp. I felt like I was Cool Hand Luke."
In 1979 Hale made the dean's list at South Texas College of Law. Regardless, the Texas Board of Law Examiners refused to let him take the Texas bar exam because he admitted he inhaled. The chairman wrote that the board thought Hale lacked moral character. So he moved to Alaska and returned to Texas in 1985 as a practicing attorney who didn't need to take the exam. "Thank God," Hale says. "I hate taking tests."
Voters in Wise County, about 70 miles northwest of Dallas, elected him county attorney in 1992. In that Democratic primary, he ran against a former law partner who had also been busted for marijuana in the 1970s. "So neither one of us raised that issue during the campaign," Hale says. Hale went to all of the candidate forums; his opponent didn't. "I beat him pretty soundly -- he didn't try very hard," Hale says. "He had been the county attorney before, and he had too many enemies." Hale was unopposed in the general election.
During his time as Wise County's chief misdemeanor prosecutor, Hale dismissed more than 500 marijuana possession cases against adults and reduced sentences for first-time pot and DUI offenses.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Hale says. "My job was to see that justice was done, not blindly enforce the law." Especially a law that he thinks is stupid.
People who have a toke or two aren't evildoers, he says. Prosecuting people who dance with Mary Jane wastes court time and taxpayer dollars, he contends. "It's insane, it's unjust, and it's unconstitutional. We're not the Taliban. Our country is supposed to be a country of tolerance, not intolerance."
Wise County Sheriff Phil Ryan says Hale was a nice guy, fun to be around and easy to work with. Hale ran an efficient office, but his drug policies didn't jibe with law enforcement agencies that wanted drug users off the street, the sheriff says.
"We got mixed emotions -- it's like seeing your mother-in-law go off a cliff in your new pickup," Ryan says.
During Hale's four-year tenure, officers became disillusioned when they made solid pot arrests and cases were dismissed, says Doug Whitehead, Ryan's chief deputy.
"We just got pissed off," Whitehead says. "He was [supposed] to uphold the laws of the state of Texas, and he didn't do it. I never saw anybody gang up against him and look like the Zulu warriors -- but it was demoralizing."
After he'd been on the job about eight months, reports began appearing about the dismissal of the marijuana cases. There were newspaper articles and angry letters to the editor from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD also was furious that Hale often reduced DUI cases down to reckless behavior.
"We went nuts," says Bill Lewis, MADD's North Texas chapter public policy liaison and former president. "It just really appalled us."Hale says he simply didn't have time to prosecute all DWI cases. He inherited 100 pending cases and could try only one a month, so he negotiated plea agreements. "My view was 'It's better to get half a pound of flesh off 100 defendants than to try and get that full pound of flesh off of five,' " Hale says.
He lost his re-election race to an opponent who accused him of not prosecuting child abuse or child neglect cases. Hale says his short-staffed office turned such prosecutions over to the district attorney because the D.A. made three times his salary and had more time and resources.