By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A Hilo cannabis minister who’s been jailed for three years without bail while awaiting trial will be able to use religion as a defense to federal marijuana distribution charges.
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi ruled during a July 31 status conference that Roger Christie and his wife, Share, “may rely upon their religious beliefs to counter the element of ‘intent to distribute’ in … charges alleged against them,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Kawahara wrote in a motion requesting reconsideration or clarification of that ruling.
Kobayashi denied the prosecutor’s motion on Wednesday, according to court records, calling it “premature.”
The 64-year-old Christie has been in the Honolulu Federal Detention Center since he and 13 other Big Island residents, including Share Christie, were arrested by federal agents on July 8, 2010.
All were charged with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess with intent to distribute 284 marijuana plants, which carries a mandatory minimum prison term of five years and a maximum of 40 years if they’re convicted. The others were granted bail, but U.S. Magistrate Kevin Chang ordered Christie held without bail, calling him “a danger to the community.”
Christie’s downtown Hilo ministry and Wainaku apartment were raided by the feds and local police on March 10, 2010. According to court documents, authorities confiscated approximately 845 grams of processed marijuana from the apartment, plus $21,494 cash found in a safe in the apartment and in a bank safe deposit box. The money and the apartment face possible federal forfeiture.
Kobayashi is also scheduled to rule on Aug. 27 on motions by the Christies to present their defense based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which protects the rights of certain Native American religions to use the hallucinogens peyote and ayahuasca as religious sacraments.
“The Judge has said that she will be deciding the RFRA issue after an evidentiary hearing. But no matter how she rules she will allow us to present a religious defense at trial as to the element of intent to distribute. In other words, you will be able to present a religious defense at trial no matter how she rules on the RFRA motion,” Roger Christie wrote in an Aug. 1 email.
The act states that “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless “it demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
“I believe this to be great news, and the ruling is a lot better than I thought it would be,” Christie wrote.
Christie, who is scheduled for trial on Oct. 8, filed a sealed notice on July 29 that he intends to mount a defense claiming “entrapment by estoppel” — meaning he will claim that one or more government officials misled him into a reasonable belief that the conduct he is charged with was legal.
In a July 16 declaration to the court, Christie stated that in 2000, he applied for and received a license from the state to perform weddings.
He wrote: “In my application to the Department of Health I specifically stated that I was seeking a license as a ‘Cannabis sacrament’ Minister. I received my license from the Department of Health … dated June 19, 2000. I became a practitioner, licensed to administer the controlled substance Cannabis in my professional practice. … I believe I am legally allowed to manufacture (cultivate), possess and distribute marijuana.” Christie also wrote that “the government has zero jurisdiction over all the seed-bearing plants” and that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration “overstepped its authority when it attempted to regulate the religious use of cannabis in this case.”
In a motion filed Aug. 6 seeking to prohibit Christie from using the entrapment by estoppel defense, Kawahara wrote that Christie identified “two Federal officials who he claimed provided misleading statements to him.” The motion did not identify those officials or what those statements were. It did state that the charged offenses “primarily occurred in the 2008-2010 time frame, which according to his notice, were several years after defendant allegedly heard the misleading statements.”
In his motion, Kawahara questioned whether Christie “made the requisite full disclosure of all of his marijuana manufacturing/distribution activities to said Federal officials,” whether those officials “‘affirmatively’ told defendant that his manufacturing and distribution activities were permissible” and “how he could have reasonably relied upon such alleged misleading advice several years later.”
A hearing on Roger Christie’s entrapment claim is scheduled for Sept. 24.
Seven co-defendants have made plea deals with the prosecution to cooperate with authorities. They are: Timothy M. Mann; Susanne Lenore Friend; Donald James Gibson; Michael B. “Dewey” Shapiro; Victoria C. Fiore; Jessica R. Walsh, aka Jessica Hackman; and Richard Bruce Turpen.
The Christies’ remaining co-defendants facing trial are: Roland Gregory Ignacio; Perry Emilio Polichcchio; John Debaptist Bouey III; Aaron George Zeeman and Wesley Sudbury. Sudbury is a fugitive, and a warrant was issued for his arrest on Sept. 17. 2010.
Calls on Monday by the Tribune Herald to Kawahara, Thomas Otake, Roger Christie’s attorney, and Lynn Panagakos, Share Christie’s attorney, were not returned by press time.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.