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A marijuana leaf and a gavel. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

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The best $2,000 I ever spent: the lawyer who cleared me of a drug charge

When my bandmates and I were arrested for marijuana possession in 1995, we hired the heaviest hitter in Utah. But I knew not everyone had that privilege.

My bandmates and I stopped for early morning gambling in Las Vegas after leaving Los Angeles late at night. We knew we had plenty of time to reach Salt Lake City, and it felt good to get out of our van, which already smelled of day-old Arby’s bags and unshowered men. We’d recently left our hometown of Seattle for a six-week tour scheduled to run from October into December. It was 1995.

The guys in my band loved to smoke pot, so much that they insisted on bringing 3.5 ounces — enough to last the entire tour. Rather than buying second-rate weed in every city, they figured they’d be smart, packing dozens of small baggies. Only one baggie would be kept in the van while the remainder sat hidden in a Tupperware container in the trailer that carried our gear, invisible and scentless among dozens of cases and boxes.

As a nonsmoker, I wasn’t thrilled with this plan, but I’d only been in the band for a year and I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up. It’s not that I thought my bandmates — friends whom I liked and trusted — would have kicked me out. But I don’t think they would have agreed to travel without pot. Our last tour (and my first) had been cut short when the headlining band, the Circle Jerks, had broken up mid-tour in Detroit. All I wanted was to play drums in a different city every night, so I decided not to rock the boat.

Two days into our tour, we were stopped at a police roadblock in the middle of the Utah desert. Most of us had been asleep before waking up to military fatigue-clad men with dogs surrounding our van with obvious suspicion. A short conversation ensued in which the driver — our singer — revealed to the officer (and his bandmates) that he’d been driving without a license.

The next few minutes passed slowly. I tried to project innocence and patience as several officers fired questions through every open van door and window. No, we didn’t have weapons. Yes, we were in a band. I visualized the best-case scenario, in which they waved us onward. And I prepared for the worst, in which I was stuffed into a jail cell. At that moment, I became acutely aware that I was the lone nonwhite person in the van. While I tried not to think about how that might affect me differently than my bandmates, I couldn’t help but wonder how the white officers’ behavior toward me might change once they read my name on my driver’s license.

Despite our repeated refusal, a thorough police search ultimately took place. We sat breathlessly, communicating only with our eyes, awaiting the safe sound of the trailer’s metal door slamming shut. But we never heard that sound. When an officer instructed us, “No talking!” we knew we’d been caught. Felony possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance was the charge, which, because of the large quantity we carried, could mean a mandatory prison sentence.

The handcuffs felt heavy as they locked onto my wrists, correcting my posture and pulling my hands back toward my heels. I tasted the dry desert and the dark, metallic-blood taste of fear.

None of us had a criminal record, and luckily, the jail was full, so we were released under the promise that we’d return two days later for a hearing in the small town of Fillmore, Utah. I immediately abandoned my bandmates and got a ride two and a half hours north to Salt Lake City, where I’d lived during high school. I stayed with my aunt and uncle, who’d planned to see our band that night but instead hosted me alone.

I spent most of that night awake in bed, feeling helpless and wanting daylight to appear so I could start calling lawyers. I thought about what my friends from college would think. Two years ago, we’d all been on the same track. Now, they were graduate students and professionals, but I was in jail and accused of being a drug dealer. I felt alone and ashamed, and I desperately wished I could erase the past 48 hours.

Still, my good luck wasn’t lost on me. I’d graduated from high school in Salt Lake City, the state capital where many of my friends’ parents were attorneys, politicians, and prominent businesspeople. While the others arrested that day awaited meetings with small-town public defenders, I called everyone I knew to compile a list of the best criminal attorneys in the state.

At the top of everyone’s list was one name, which always carried the caveat, “but you probably won’t be able to get him.” I recognized it from when a friend house-sat for his family. When I called her to tell her about my situation, she called me right back to say he’d see me that afternoon.

His reputation had brought to mind an image of a man in his 50s, imposing, with a furrowed brow and a strong stare. The real lawyer was younger, more professorial in his well-cut suit.

“There’s something here,” he responded when I finished my account of the day. “It’ll be $10,000 to get through the preliminary hearing. That’s where I’ll contest the search. If it goes beyond that, we’ll have to talk about money again.”

I agreed on the spot, knowing I could scrape together my $2,000 share and correctly assuming that my bandmates felt the same way. When I wasn’t touring with my band, I earned $8 an hour working at a record store. I lived with four roommates in a house with one bathroom and a total rent of $770 per month. I had no savings, but I hadn’t felt the slightest reservation about the legal fee. I saw no other option; I would have agreed to $10,000 for myself alone, knowing that I had parents, relatives, and friends who would help get me out of my predicament.

In the elevator, I thought through the long list of people I knew I could count on. It made me feel safe, secure, and very, very fortunate.

We occupied cold metal chairs in the brightly lit Fillmore courtroom where behind us sat four men in orange jumpsuits, each wearing handcuffs. That could have been us, I thought. If the jail hadn’t been full, we would have been in orange suits, locked up for the past two days. I assumed they were locked up because they’d hit the roadblock before us.

But it was possible that these men, with their downcast eyes and multiple tattoos, just hadn’t impressed the judge in the way we apparently had before he released us. He might have seen them as belonging to a different social class, preferred that they remain locked up. We, on the other hand, posed less of a threat in our jeans, T-shirts, and relatively short hair.

“The case of …” the judge called our names without inflection. He looked around to see who responded and we sheepishly half-raised our hands, catching his gaze. “Stand, please.”

The prosecutor stood on the opposite side of the room wearing a suit not nearly as nice as our attorney’s. He shuffled some papers and read, “Your honor, the charge is possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.”

When asked by the judge, I named our attorney. The prosecutor flinched. Then he looked at us in disbelief.

“I know him well.” The judge’s tone shifted. His voice lifted with approval, and a small grin pulled at his cheeks. Our preliminary hearing date was scheduled for a December date soon after the tour ended.

The tour was brutal: Six weeks driving around America while the days darkened and iced over as fall turned into winter. We lived between cheap motels and a freezing, rented Ryder truck because our comfortable van had been seized as evidence. The same model truck had been used in the Oklahoma City bombing earlier that year, causing us to be pulled over, questioned, and searched daily in the Bible Belt states. Felony charges and prison time hung over our heads, and the worst part was that we couldn’t tell anyone. We were about to record an album and we didn’t want our label to question our future and pull the plug.

We’ve all seen sexy, exciting court proceedings on TV. Judges bang their gavels as arrogant lawyers overdramatize mundane situations. But in real life, court is dry and uneventful. Our preliminary hearing, however, was more like the TV version.

“My clients were minding their own business driving to work. They weren’t speeding. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They were stopped at a roadblock. And that’s when they ran into this nightmare in Fillmore.” Our attorney held a dramatic pause after accepting the judge’s offer to speak on behalf of his clients. “Their civil rights were violated. They refused to be searched three times. But these officers kept pushing and ultimately conducted a completely illegal and immoral search of my clients’ van and personal property.”

He was onstage for us, for the prosecutor, and for the judge, who imposed the exact punishments he’d predicted: The rightful owners of the pot each received a $300 fine. And the charges against me were dropped completely; my record would be expunged, as if the arrest had never happened.

We looked at each other in gleeful disbelief, more confident than ever that we’d hired the right guy. We each shook our lawyer’s hand because that’s what happened in TV court. Then the prosecutor shook each of our hands, smiling as if he needed us to like him. As we left the courtroom, both he and one of the arresting officers approached us with small pads of paper, asking for our autographs. We obliged, playing the part of the ’90s Seattle band they’d incorrectly assumed we were.

It stung a little — pretending to be famous when we were touring in a van, as an opening band where I made the same amount as I did working at the record store when I was home.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the men in the orange suits. If they’d had the connections and the money, they might be telling their version of this story. And if I hadn’t had the connections and the money, my life might be drastically different. It was the first time I’d experienced privilege of such magnitude, and I was conflicted with feelings of relief, guilt, elation, and sympathy. I tried to justify the outcome: What if they were guilty of real crimes? Or worse, what if they were sentenced to 60 years in prison for something petty, adding to the many recent cases of extreme sentencing in the US?

But then I kicked myself for making assumptions; I have no idea why they were arrested or how their cases turned out.

We bid our attorney farewell and promised he’d appear first on the thanks list on our new album, which he did. He promised he’d come see us play in Salt Lake City, which he didn’t.

I’ve held on to the stack of paperwork I have from the state of Utah. It includes a letter ensuring me that if I’m ever asked if I’ve been arrested in connection with this incident, the answer is, truthfully, “No.” I refer to it as “my $2,000 letter.” The one that allowed me to keep living my life.


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