While waiting for U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block to arrive in the ninth floor courtroom inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana this afternoon, the 14 individuals arrested in a federal takedown of a massive Orange County and LA marijuana distribution network were mostly smiling and chatty while in street clothes.
But the outward levity disappeared as soon as Block entered and announced a tentative Dec. 18 trial date where the 11 men and three women will face felony charges for allegedly distributing more than 1,000 kilos of marijuana at nine Southern California pot shops.
Block also announced to the courtroom packed with the defendants' family members, defense lawyers and at least seven Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents that the trial will be handled by federal Judge James V. Selna.
--John Melvin Walker, the alleged ringleader, is also charged with violating laws against convicted felons possessing weapons.
--Nicholas Einar Lattu is charged with possessing a weapon to further drug trafficking.
--Nicholas Martin Butier III and Perry Brooks Forehand are charged with distributing pot near schools.
--Sierra Marina Serhan faces an additional charge for allegedly destroying records in a federal investigation.
Assistant United States Attorney Christine S. Bautista, normally assigned to the U.S. Department of Justice's Los Angeles office, is the lead prosecutor on the case and, at one point during today's hearing, gave many of the defendants noticeable shock.
Bautista told Block that Forehand is facing a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence if convicted and wanted tough bail orders because, she said, he's "a danger to the community and a flight risk."
But Forehand's defense lawyer called the prosecutor's assertions "disingenuous," noting that his client's only prior serious conviction occurred 16 years ago when he was a juvenile.
Bautista then mentioned that Forehand had also received a driving infraction citation in recent years.
Block couldn't have looked more unimpressed.
He sided against the prosecutor and ordered Forehand released today on $50,000 bail.
He also ordered all the defendants to surrender passports and weapons, stay in California during the length of the case and to undergo random U.S. Marshal searches and drug testing.
The judge specifically said that if any of them are caught in possession or use of marijuana (or any illegal drug--booze is okay) they will face additional charges because federal statutes deem the substances illegal regardless of California law.
Producing medical marijuana cards won't save them, Block said.
Bautista predicted the trial will last seven or eight days.
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