Wheeling Criminal Law Blog

Study examines racial disparities in criminal justice system

Many people in West Virginia have raised concerns about serious racial disparities in incarceration and sentencing that have significantly affected black communities across the country. According to one study by the Council on Criminal Justice, some types of racial gaps are decreasing in the criminal justice system while others remain significant, and still more seem to be increasing. The council releasing the report is a nonpartisan association that includes government officials from both major parties as well as justice reform advocates and police agency representatives.

According to the study, state prisons and local jails showed a decreased disparity in the incarceration of black and white defendants as did the parole and probation system. The most significant decline in the racial gap came in the area of drug offenses, which have been a primary target of criminal justice reform efforts, especially as many people have served years in prison for nonviolent crimes. Marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis have played a role in changing drug laws. In 2000, black people were 15 times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for drug offenses, a multiplier that dropped to five times by 2016. While noting that these were positive results, observers also said that they continue to show a concerning racial gap in outcomes.

West Virginia traffic stop leads to drug seizure

Two West Virginia residents and an Ohio man were taken into custody during the early morning hours of Nov. 22 after drugs and drug paraphernalia were allegedly discovered in the vehicle they were traveling in during a routine traffic stop. A 43-year-old Wheeling man and a 36-year-old Wheeling woman have both been charged with possessing illegal drugs with the intent to distribute. The man also faces a gun possession charge. A 34-year-old Ohio man was released after being issued a citation for possessing a controlled substance.

According to a Wheeling Police Department report, officers conducted a traffic stop on North Huron Street at approximately 1:40 a.m. for an undisclosed traffic violation. Officers say that they became suspicious and decided to search the vehicle after detecting the odor of marijuana. The ensuing search is said to have led to the discovery of an undisclosed quantity of a substance believed to be methamphetamine and items commonly used to consume the drug.

Woman facing drug charges after allegedly consenting to search

A 33-year-old West Virginia woman was charged with six felony drug counts after allegedly giving police consent to search her home and phone on the afternoon of Nov. 15. During the searches, a West Virginia State Police trooper says that he discovered undisclosed but reportedly significant quantities of marijuana and methamphetamine along with a large amount of U.S. currency and drug packaging materials. The Marion County resident is being held at the North Central Regional Jail on charges including drug possession, drug possession with the intent to deliver and conspiracy to deliver illegal narcotics.

According to a WVSP report, the trooper was dispatched to the woman's apartment on Clayton Street in Rivesville after a concerned citizen called in a tip about possible criminal activity. The trooper says that he gave the woman a Miranda warning and asked for permission to search the premises after observing drug paraphernalia in plain sight on a coffee table. The trooper claims that the woman then gave him written permission to conduct a search.

Two sentenced for shipping pot via U.S. Postal Service

On Nov. 18, two West Virginia men were sentenced for taking part in a drug ring that shipped hundreds of pounds of marijuana from California to Huntington via the U.S. Postal Service. The case was heard in federal court.

According to media reports, one of the defendants, age 44, confessed to arranging the shipment of multiple packages of marijuana from California to West Virginia between 2013 and March 2018. Once the packages arrived in Huntington, he paid the second defendant, a 43-year-old postal worker, to deliver the packages to assigned locations or to personally meet him and hand over the parcels. Federal agents discovered two of the packages at the Huntington Post Office on March 15, 2018, which caused authorities to place the postal worker under surveillance. During the investigation, agents observed him passing the packages to the 44-year-old defendant outside an area retail store.

How unconscious bias may affect a judge's decisions

Some judges in West Virginia may be guided in their decisions by unconscious bias, and this could hurt defendants. Unconscious bias occurs when one is prejudiced against a group even when this goes against their conscious feelings about the group. Since research suggests that many judges use their intuition more than logic to make judgments, unconscious bias could have a far-reaching effect.

Unconscious bias may have been at play in a case that involved counterprotesters at a far-right "straight pride" parade in Massachusettes. There were more counterprotesters than actual participants in the parade, and a total of three dozen people were taken into custody. The district attorney wanted charges dismissed against those who were facing charges for nonviolent offenses and did not have criminal records. However, the judge refused.

Can you avoid a sobriety checkpoint?

Whether you are attending a University of West Virginia football game, going to a concert or catching up with old friends, you may want to have a few beers or a couple of cocktails. Still, you do not want your otherwise fun evening to turn into a legal nightmare. If you drink and drive, though, you may have to defend yourself aggressively to avoid DUI penalties. 

In the Mountain State, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle if you have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or higher. To enforce the state‚Äôs DUI laws, police use a variety of tactics, including sobriety checkpoints. Because approaching a checkpoint can be stressful, you may wonder if you can alter your route to avoid a checkpoint altogether. 

There may be reason to doubt Breathalyzer results

Breathalyzer test results used in West Virginia may not be accurate. A report from the New York Times found that roughly 30,000 cases were thrown out in New Jersey and Massachusetts over a period of 12 months. Human error is one reason why Breathalyzer results may be incorrect, but the machine itself could simply be defective at the time a test is administered. One police department tried to correct for low results by drilling a hole in their device.

Human error could result in a machine that is not properly calibrated or is not properly maintained. If it is not properly programmed, it may be difficult or impossible to get accurate results. A result could also be skewed simply because a driver had a breath mint prior to submitting to a Breathalyzer test. As machines get older, they may be less reliable regardless of how well they are calibrated, programmed and maintained.

Blood pattern analysis may not be as accurate as believed

State attorneys who prosecute individuals for violent crimes that occur in West Virginia often rely on testimony from expert witnesses experienced in blood pattern analysis. Blood spatter has been used since the late 19th-century and has played an important role in many trials, including the one of O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend in 1995.

Police often rely on BPA when trying to determine what happened in a crime scene. Investigators work backward using blood drips, smears and spatters. The different types and locations of the blood can help them determine where an assailant was standing and how they were attacked. Experts may be able to identify the type of weapon used, the height of the alleged attacker and if the victim fought back based on the blood residue. Experts on BPA have been used as witnesses in thousands of cases over the years and many people have been convicted or exonerated because of their evidence.

Community service sentences can exacerbate poverty

For many people in West Virginia, community service is seen as a better, lighter sentence that can help people avoid jail time after a conviction. However, one study published by UCLA's Labor Center and School of Law noted that community service sentences can actually pose significant problems for some defendants, especially low-income people of color who cannot afford to pay fines. Therefore, they are forced to choose between jail time or weeks of full-time, unpaid labor that can worsen poverty and affect other members of their family.

Community service is often touted as a humane approach that is more forgiving than fines, especially for people living in poverty. However, the study argues that the effects of community service sentences largely mimic those of fines and court debt. Researchers examined 5,000 people in Los Angeles County required to perform community service as an alternative to paying a fine between 2013 and 2014. The county required people to perform 8 million hours of community service, the equivalent of 4,900 paid jobs, and various government agencies received 3 million hours of unpaid work, equivalent to 1,800 paid employees. In particular, the study noted that the use of unpaid labor also exacerbates problems with unemployment as governments can look to sentenced individuals for labor that would normally require hiring workers.

Key points on intent to distribute

While the state of West Virginia now allows the use of medical marijuana, this does not allow all types of drug use. For those who have a controlled substance without a proper prescription, it could lead to serious criminal charges.

The type of drug charge depends upon a few different factors. Particularly in the case of intent to distribute charges, there are certain key points to be aware of.

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