By GENE JOHNSON
AP LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- Neither Joshua Sutton nor Joseph Hubbard had any criminal history when they bought $15,000 worth of marijuana from an undercover detective in Whatcom County last year. Both were arrested and charged with unlawful possession with intent to deliver, a felony.
But then their cases diverged dramatically, thanks to a practice which has been routine for nearly three decades in this county on the Canadian border, where federal agents dump reams of drug cases on local officials every year.
Sutton, who put up most or all of the money for the drug buy, paid $9,040 to a fund administered by the Whatcom County prosecutor. He was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge, received a suspended sentence and went on his way. His payment was nearly double the maximum fine for the misdemeanor.
Hubbard, a construction worker, pleaded guilty as charged and was sentenced to 45 days on a work crew. The felony on his record means he loses the right to vote, and it could affect his ability to land a job for the rest of his life.
Their cases illustrate the inequality of an unusual system in which defendants with quick access to $2,000 or more can often "buy down" the charges against them, many legal experts say. In some cases reviewed by the AP, people caught with several pounds of marijuana pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges after paying thousands of dollars to the county's fund. In another, a young man caught with less than 2 ounces pleaded guilty to a felony after he failed to pay.
"Yikes, it sounds like the sale of indulgences in the old Catholic church," said Janet Ainsworth, a criminal law professor at Seattle University. "If you were to have a continuum between paying a fine and bribery, this is somewhere in between."