How a Small-Time Pot Possession Charge Can Ruin Your Life in 24 Hours

Rebecca Kennedy wasn’t expecting to be surrounded by police when she stopped at her storage unit to change into comfy clothes before work.

She and her fiancé, Trevon Chapman, had just been evicted from their apartment two days earlier, on September 15, when they could no longer pay the $2,000-per-month rent. So they started living out of Chapman’s truck. The two military vets had moved all their belongings — “their entire lives,” Kennedy says — into this little metal box in Jersey Village.

Now, they were suspected of being thieves.

Jersey Village police officers ordered them out of their vehicle so they could search them. Chapman had a gun in his pants holster, which he planned to drop off in storage since he did not yet have a concealed-handgun license, and did not want to get arrested for having it in his car. Police arrested him.

Then, officers said they were going to search the vehicle, claiming they spotted a marijuana grinder in plain sight. Kennedy, who spent six years in the Navy and a few flying soldiers into combat zones, says she obtained a medical marijuana card when she returned to California from her deployment in Japan last year. She says she used pot to quell her bad episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder. But when officers found less than two ounces inside a little dispenser in a Dr Pepper can, she got arrested too. “I feel like they trapped us,” said Kennedy, who just turned 25. “They didn't even give us a chance.”

Within 24 hours, Kennedy was fired from her UPS job as she sat in jail waiting for her mom to drive from Georgia to bail her out. Her mom lost her job, too, because she had to miss her shifts at Lowe's to make the trip. Kennedy had to drop out of the University of Houston because, as a condition of her bond, she would need to go live with her mom in Georgia as she awaited trial. And as a result, she also lost her GI Bill benefits.

All of this because officers, for unknown reasons, did not follow a simple policy when they arrested her.

With a clean criminal record — not even a traffic ticket on the books — Kennedy should have been eligible for Harris County's First Chance Intervention Program, a leniency program for first-time, low-level pot offenders. Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson launched the program in October 2014 to help these first timers avoid jail time and criminal charges in exchange for community service. The goal was not only to save taxpayer money by not jailing these nonviolent people with petty charges, but also to make sure they don't have to face the consequences of those petty charges, like losing a job. Or, as in Kennedy's case, everything.

The problem with the First Chance policy, though, is that officers aren’t really required to follow it. There’s a little “exception” clause that allows officers to use their discretion and deny the program to eligible offenders “when deemed appropriate.” And police appear to be denying offenders quite often. As of October 20, 79 percent of people eligible for First Chance — that’s 1,728 offenders — had already spent time in jail and were charged with the crime before they were offered the program, which, as we've written previously, pretty much defeats the purpose of the program.

When we first explored this problem in September, DA’s Office spokesman Jeff McShan told us the main reason this was happening was that only the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office were participating in the program pre-charge. That has since changed; as of October 1, 11 agencies are participating pre-charge. Jersey Village Police Department began on September 14 — meaning it should have been fresh in officers’ minds when they arrested Kennedy.

But still, even the two main agencies, HPD and HCSO, were jailing and charging 40 percent of eligible offenders before they were offered First Chance in court.

The Houston Press attempted to find out why so many defendants eligible for the program were still being arrested, charged and jailed before it was offered. We requested to see every single exception form — which officers who deny First Chance to eligible offenders are required to fill out under the policy — filed since October 2014, assuming there would be some 1,728 of them.

We received 13.

The DA’s Office could not explain what happened to the other 1,715 forms, or if officers were just not following the policy or forgetting about this requirement. Prosecutors also could not provide any reason for why Kennedy could have been denied the program based on the facts of her case; a secretary at Jersey Village Police Department told us there was nothing in Kennedy’s arrest report that indicated why police denied it to her either.

The first time Kennedy had even heard of First Chance, she said, was when we called her.

When we brought Kennedy's case to the attention of the DA's Office, McShan questioned why her defense attorney didn’t just explain the program to her. Kennedy, after proving that she had only $350 to her name and had just lost everything, was finally appointed counsel three weeks after the arrest, on October 9. However, Kennedy says the court did not provide her with the attorney’s phone number and told her to “just Google it.” Which she couldn’t do, because she didn’t have Internet access and police had confiscated her cellphone and never returned it. Police had also confiscated a little souvenir training missile Kennedy had taken home with her from deployment and, after police threatened to file federal charges, they called a bomb squad to make sure Chapman and Kennedy weren’t trying to blow up the storage unit. When they noticed Kennedy's Mac laptop in storage, police questioned how she could have possibly afforded it. They demanded to see a receipt for proof of purchase — from 2009.

When Harris County assistant district attorney Nicole Clark heard about what happened to Kennedy, she told the Press, “That sounds very unfortunate.”

And it doesn't appear Kennedy's story is all that unique. Among the 13 exception forms was that of a 19-year-old kid who, both unemployed and not in school, served four days in jail and paid a $300 fine and $297 in court costs for getting caught with a little baggie of pot. He also had a squeaky clean record. The officer's reasoning for denying him First Chance was that he was arrested during a narcotics sting operation, in which others in the room, presumably dealers, were caught with larger amounts of pot.

Clark insists that this is one of the main reasons officers might deny First Chance (next to offenders not having proper identification on them). At least in this 19-year-old’s case, just being in the same room as those people may now hurt his chances of getting hired or being accepted to a college.

Still, Clark said she believes the program has been successful since 94 percent of First Chance participants have not reoffended. “We feel like that’s a pretty drastic, very good success rate of how the program is positively impacting people,” Clark said.

Should Kennedy be offered the program in court, she would likely also be included in that success rate once she completes it.

But for now, Kennedy and Chapman are trying to figure out how they’ll even make it back to Texas for court. With both of them and Kennedy’s mother being out of work, they don’t know how they’ll pool together enough money for gas. To get to Georgia, Kennedy and Chapman spent their last money on a flight, since Kennedy’s mom had to head back earlier than they did.

Before leaving Houston, they cleared out the storage unit. They parked Chapman's truck in a no-tow zone with all of their belongings, their entire lives, stowed away in the bed, covered by a tarp. They had hoped it wouldn't rain too hard.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn