Sixth Circuit Court Judge Denies Defendant’s Use of Medical Marijuana

May 10, 2023 Criminal Defense, Drug Charges, News & Announcements

When a defendant is convicted of a criminal offense and sentenced to probation, it is ultimately the judge who decides on the rules and regulations of the probation term. In Florida, this can include visits with the probation officer and random drug testing. After a recent probation hearing in Florida, a Clearwater judge is now being criticized for not allowing a convicted person to use medical marijuana during the term of her probation.

This article will provide the details of the case, information on probation terms in Florida, medical marijuana, and the role of a judge.

What was the Incident?

During a court proceeding on January 12th, 2023, to set a misdemeanor DUI defendant’s probation term, Pinellas County Court Judge Dorothy Vaccaro told the 21-year-old that she shouldn’t have a need for a medical marijuana card. According to the report, the defendant told the judge she uses marijuana to help calm her anxiety. Vaccaro responded by saying anxiety is not a sufficient reason to use the controlled substance.

Instead, the judge recommended that she consider trying Xanax instead. However, some see Xanax as a more powerful substance than marijuana, with side effects that are widely known.

The judge’s response comes seven years after medical marijuana was made legal in the State, indicating that it is still a touchy subject in legal proceedings. This is despite Florida’s 800,000 medical marijuana patients across the state.

Judge Vaccaro rejected the defendant’s use of medical marijuana under her probation terms, and instead offered the consideration for Xanax. Vaccaro also threatened to order a drug test and arrest the defendant without bond if she continued to use marijuana while on probation.

In addition to offering a substitute substance, Vaccaro told the defendant she was too young to have a medical marijuana card.

“Anxiety can be done a different way, through alprazolam, right? Xanax,” Vaccaro said, telling the defendant to see a primary care doctor. “So they can deal with that that way, and there’s a drug that they can give you.”

Vaccaro then said she could reconsider her decision if the defendant became “all wiggly” on Xanax, or if she obtained another doctor’s note to support her use of medical marijuana.

The girl’s defense attorney informed the judge they would investigate getting prescribed Xanax. However, according to Jaggers Keene, a Largo primary care physician, Xanax can result in dangerous side effects. For some people, this includes thoughts of suicide or seizures. Xanax can become fatal when mixed with alcohol, which is notable considering the defendant’s case was a DUI.

6th Judicial Circuit spokesperson Stephen Thompson said that anxiety is not a qualifier for obtaining a medical marijuana card, and it does not grant someone the ability to use medical marijuana while on probation.

However, there are other health issues, like PTSD, which is a permissible reason to receive a medical card. He further explained that other judges in the 6th Judicial Circuit have been known to deny those on probation the use of medical marijuana, even if they have a valid medical card and documentation.

13th Judicial Circuit public information officer Mike Moore claimed he isn’t aware of any judge in his district who has a policy against using medical marijuana while on probation. “If something is prescribed, that’s up to the doctor, not the judge,” said Moore.

Probation Terms in Florida

In Florida, a convicted person’s probation terms are usually set by the appointed judge. When a person is convicted of a criminal offense and is sentenced to probation, the judge will impose specific conditions that the individual must comply with while they are on probation.

These conditions may include requirements such as reporting to a probation officer, submitting to drug testing, attending counseling or treatment programs, refraining from using drugs or alcohol, and avoiding contact with certain individuals or specific locations.

Under Florida Statute Section 948.03, the terms and conditions of probation are determined by the court. The conditions may include any of the following:

  • Reporting to the probation officer as directed;
  • Permitting the probation officer to visit his or her home;
  • Working faithfully at a suitable employment;
  • Remaining within a specified place;
  • Living without violating any law;
  • Making reparation or restitution to the aggrieved party if necessary;
  • Not associating with any persons engaged in criminal activity; and/or
  • Submitting to random testing as directed by the probation officer.

Failure to Follow Probation Terms

If a convicted person in Florida fails to follow the terms of their probation, it may lead to any of the following consequences:

  • Probation Violation Hearing – If there are any alleged probation violations, the probation officer assigned to the case must investigate and submit a report to the judge. The judge may then schedule a probation violation hearing, in which the defendant must appear in court and defend themselves against the violation allegation.
  • Revocation of Probation – If the judge determines that the defendant has violated their terms of probation, they can revoke probation and instead impose the original sentencing. This is typically either jail or imprisonment.
  • Additional Conditions – If the judge does not revoke probation, they may instead impose additional conditions. This may include community service, fines, or an extended period of probation time.
  • Arrest – If the violation of probation is deemed dangerous or serious, then the probation officer may issue an arrest warrant, and the defendant may be taken into custody.

It’s imperative that you take the terms of your probation seriously. Failure to do so can result in harsh consequences such as lengthy imprisonment. Some common violations include new criminal offenses, a failed drug test, failing to pay for the cost of probation, missing appointments with the probation officer, and failing to complete the court-ordered programs.

If you are unsure about the terms of your probation or have any questions regarding the process, we advise you to reach out to a skilled defense attorney in your area.

To find out more about probation violations in Florida, find our informative page here.

Medical Marijuana in Florida

Florida’s medical marijuana law was first passed in 2016. It allows for a qualified physician to authorize the legal use of marijuana for specific mental and physical conditions.

To legally obtain and use medical marijuana in Florida, patients must first obtain a recommendation from a qualified physician. After this, they can apply for a Medical Marijuana Use Registry Identification Card through the State’s Department of Health. Only permanent or seasonal residents in Florida with qualifying medical conditions are eligible to receive a medical marijuana card.

It is important to note that while medical marijuana is legal in Florida, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug on the Federal Drug Schedule and on the Florida Drug Schedule. Furthermore, unlawfully possessing marijuana can still result in serious drug charges and criminal penalties in Florida.

Find out more about medical marijuana and criminal defense in Florida here.

A Judge’s Role

Charles Geyh, professor at Maurer School of Law, claims it is not unusual for a judge to “make decisions on the fly.” However, he raised concerns that Judge Vaccaro “basically trumped the judgement of a physician without gathering all the facts.”

Vaccaro received additional criticism from Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southern University. Jarvis, who wrote on Florida’s judicial rules, says the judge should not have used the defendant’s age as a reason to deny her use of medical marijuana.

In Florida, judges must follow the judicial canons—the rules which judges are sworn to follow. The following lists Leon County’s Code of Judicial Conduct for the State of Florida:

  1. A Judge shall uphold the integrity and independence of the Judiciary;
  2. A Judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the Judge’s activities;
  3. A Judge shall perform the duties of Judicial Office impartially and diligently;
  4. A Judge is encouraged to engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice;
  5. A Judge shall regulate extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with judicial duties;
  6. Fiscal matters of a judge shall be conducted in a manner that does not give the appearance of influence or impropriety; and
  7. A Judge or candidate for Judicial Office shall refrain from inappropriate political activity.

Under Canon 3(a)(5), the Code of Judicial Court states the following:

“A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice. A judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice, including but not limited to bias or prejudice based upon race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, or socio-economic status, and shall not permit staff, court officials, and others subject to the judge’s direction and control to do so. This section does not preclude the consideration of race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or similar factors when they are issues in the proceeding.”

You can read the full Code of Judicial Court procedures here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges, prioritize speaking with a defense attorney in your area. In Florida, those convicted of a crime may face expensive fines, imprisonment, probation, or all of the above. Make sure you understand your probationary terms to ensure you don’t encounter any issues in the future. By working with an experienced Tallahassee, FL criminal defense attorney, you can rest knowing you have a knowledgeable legal professional in your corner.

Don Pumphrey and his team have represented Florida citizens accused of criminal offenses for years. We understand the nuances of the law and will fight to get your charges lessened or dismissed completely. Contact Pumphrey Law Firm today and receive a free consultation regarding your case. Call us at (850) 681-7777 or leave us an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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