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On The Front Lines

VICTORY: Virginia Jury Finds Man Not Guilty of Marijuana Possession, Disapproves of Helicopter Surveillance, Warrantless Police Raid

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A seven-person jury in Albemarle Circuit Court has acquitted 54-year-old Philip Cobbs of a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge levied against him after a SWAT team-like raid, aided by military helicopter surveillance and acting without a search warrant, allegedly found two marijuana stalks growing among weeds on his 39-acre property. Cobbs, who cares for his elderly mother, had denied any knowledge of the existence of the alleged plants. In finding Cobbs not guilty, the jury substantively expressed both its disapproval for the police tactics used and that the Commonwealth had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Cobbs had knowledge of any marijuana. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute also argued that officers violated Cobbs’ Fourth Amendment rights, specifically challenging the legality of the search.

“This is not only a victory for Philip Cobbs, who took a courageous stand for freedom, but a victory for the Fourth Amendment and the residents of Albemarle County,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “This resounding acquittal of Philip Cobbs by a jury of his peers sends a strong message to the police that they should not be spying on us with helicopters and invading our property without a warrant and in violation of the law.”

Philip Cobbs, a 54-year-old former teacher who cares for his blind, deaf 90-year-old mother, lives on a 39-acre tract of land in eastern Albemarle County that has been in his family since the 1860s. On the morning of July 26, 2011, while spraying the blueberry bushes near his Virginia house, Cobbs noticed a black helicopter circling overhead. After watching the helicopter for several moments, Cobbs went inside to check on his mother. By the time he returned outside, several unmarked police vehicles had driven onto his property, and police in flak jackets, carrying rifles and shouting unintelligibly, had exited the vehicles and were moving toward him and through his property. The police officers claimed they had sighted marijuana plants growing on Cobbs’ property and told Cobbs they would show him those plants.  Distressed and intimidated by the show of force, Cobbs indicated his lack of knowledge about any marijuana plants on his property and agreed to follow the officers. As one of the police officers radioed up to the helicopter for directions, they were led to an area in the yard where an oak tree had fallen. Within the limbs of the fallen tree and an adjoining bush were two plants protruding, which the officers claimed were the alleged marijuana plants. The police then asked to search Cobbs’ greenhouse, which turned up nothing more than used tomato seedling containers. Over a month later, Cobbs received a summons charging him with possession of marijuana under Va. Code § 18.2-250.1, which provides that “ownership or occupancy of the premises or vehicle upon or in which marijuana was found shall not create a presumption that such person either knowingly or intentionally possessed such marijuana.” Institute attorneys filed a motion asking the Circuit Court to find that the search of Cobbs’ property was illegal. But in June 2012, the court ruled that the area searched by police was outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment and allowed the prosecution to move forward.

Affiliate attorneys Paul Belonick and Andrew Sneathern of Sneathern & Lhospital of Charlottesville, Va., assisted The Rutherford Institute in defending Cobbs.

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