A Georgia man was sentenced to a year in jail for possessing less than an ounce of cannabis, following a traffic stop that he believes was racially motivated.
DENVER, CO – APRIL 20: Paul, who did on want to give a last name, loads his pipe during the 4/20 marijuana event at Civic Center Park on April 20, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Someone serving exorbitant jail time for a single joint sounds like the ending of an outdated anecdote. But for anyone living where cannabis is still illegal, it’s an everyday reality—one that Georgia resident, Robert Stovall, found out the hard way. As reported by NBC’s 11Alive, he was sentenced to twelve months in jail for possession of 1.5 grams of cannabis, or the equivalent of “a few Cheerios,” as his attorney put it.
Stovall was stopped in Newman, Georgia for a broken tag light, and immediately confessed to having cannabis. “I do have a small personal amount that I smoke recreationally,” the 37-year-old told officer Alec Taylor, who described it as “a tiny bit, like a few nuggets.” Taylor also said that Stovall “was as nice as can be about it.”
Unfortunately for Stovall, being nice about pot possession doesn’t change the laws in Georgia. Stovall, who is jobless and homeless, with only his beat-up car to his name, had the officer jumpstart it after the stop. These circumstances illuminate why the Office of the Solicitor General’s recommended $1,300 fine, community service, and a year of probation for the misdemeanor was met with such pushback.
Stovall’s lawyer, Brad Moody, pointed out the very obvious fact that Stovall did not have $1,300, nor the means to come up with the cash. Also, that he had no reliable transportation and could not make regular probation hearings.
“Putting him on probation is just asking to revoke him,” Moody said, suggesting that jail time might actually be more feasible for Stovall.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Moody didn’t anticipate just how hard of a place Stovall was headed. Having already served 21 days and assuming Stovall would be set free within a few months, they were shocked when Coweta County Judge, Seay VanPatten-Poulakos, handed down the maximum sentence allowed by law: one year.
“The only reason Mr. Stovall was sentenced to 12 months in jail is because he’s poor,” Moody said. He turned to the media with the story, which succeeded in reducing Stovall’s sentence. Judge Poulakos was initially unapologetic when 11Alive contacted her for comment, noting that Stovall had two prior arrests for cannabis possession. Those arrests? They occurred more than 10 years ago, and Stovall has no history of violent crime.
Shortly after 11Alive contacted Poulakos, she scheduled a call with Moody and the prosecutor’s office. She urged Moody to file a motion for reconsideration, “rather than posting stuff on social media.”
He did, and Stovall was allowed to go free after 57 days’ time-served, so long as he completed a drug evaluation. Stovall only found out about the motion the day before he was released. He told 11Alive that he was “Very thankful. Thankful to Mr. Moody and everyone else following this case.” He also thanked the news station directly for their inquiries, saying it definitely helped secure his release. And while he knew he broke the law and would face consequences, he feels the judge abused her authority.
Rural Georgia counties like Coweta still allow judges to give jail time for misdemeanor cannabis offenses, while many Georgia cities have decriminalized it to no more than a small fine. Atlanta, for example, slaps offenders with a $75 ticket.
Following the ordeal, Stovall admitted that he was more frustrated with the officer who pulled him over. “There was nothing about myself that should have drawn the attention of any law enforcement, but it did,” he said, noting that the officer’s body cam video seems to show his tag light is functioning.
Stovall is a black man. And the stop, he suspects, was racially motivated.