A former Mountlake Terrace, Washington, police officer who was vilified and fired because he supports the decriminalization of marijuana has won a massive settlement from the city and Snohomish County. The two entities will pay Sgt. Jonathan Wender $815,000, in addition to three years of back pay. But wait -- there's more: The city will also pay him his $90,000 a year salary for the next two years while he stays on administrative leave and then retires with full benefits.
Wender is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a professor at the University of Washington, where he writes and lectures about police work and drug policy. While a police officer, he had repeatedly and publicly criticized the department and its commanders over a number of issues, including drug law enforcement. That public dissent irked commanders and led to the department and the Snohomish County prosecutors office ultimately firing him on a pretext.
In July 2005, Wender received a call from a woman who reported a marijuana plant growing at her ex-husband's house. Under the couple's divorce settlement, drug use was forbidden because of the presence of children. Wender responded by telephoning the man and telling him he was "foolish and irresponsible" to be growing a pot plant and to "do what he needed to do" immediately. But the woman entered the house the next day, saw marijuana plants still there, photographed them and gave the photos to narcotics detectives, who raided the house.
Both department commanders and Snohomish County prosecutors used the incident to begin investigations of Wender, with prosecutors labeling him a "Brady cop," or a police officer whose integrity or honesty is so in doubt that prosecutors must tell defense attorneys about the allegations. That was enough to get Wender fired, even though he was never charged with a crime.
He sued, alleging the department and the county violated his free speech rights and fired him because of his political beliefs. He also claimed that prosecutors and the department gave him no opportunity to challenge the "Brady cop" finding, thus violating his right to due process.
That the city and the county settled the case instead of going to trial showed that Wender was targeted for his political views, his attorney, Andrea Brenneke, told the Seattle Times after the settlement was announced. "He was enforcing the law," Brenneke said. "The department and prosecutors made an assumption that because of his beliefs about the war on drugs that Sgt. Wender wasn't doing his job. That's not true."
Depositions from several other local police officers taken in the case showed that, while they might have handled the 2005 case differently, they all thought his response was within his discretion as a police officer. But his commanders and county prosecutors saw an opportunity to get rid of someone whose views challenged theirs. Now, the good citizens of Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish County will pay.