The Court Battle of NJWeedman

NJWeedman first opened up NJWeedman’s Joint in Trenton in June 2015. Everything went fine until Trenton police began openly harassing the black business in 2016 in order to silence the political activist and his following. Police began disturbing his business customers by kicking them out of the building or writing parking tickets. NJWeedman’s business in just a few months received over 50 citations for random violations. That was followed up by NJWeedman’s arrest on April 19, 2016. And that was followed up a week later by a SWAT-like raid on his business on April 27, resulting in NJWeedman and others being arrested. And, of course, that was followed up with NJWeedman being arrested for allegedly cyber-bullying a cop on May 13 - his third arrest in a span of just three weeks. And then his Weedmobile was impounded in August, after being confiscated during the raid through the state’s racist asset civil forfeiture laws. And from there the Trenton police continued their harassment of the state’s leading cannabis activist.

Trenton police raid on “NJWeedman’s Joint” and “Liberty Bell Temple III” on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Photo from NJ.com.

The big raid on his business was conducted after police sent in an informant, a.k.a. the “Rat,” to entrap NJWeedman on charges of selling cannabis. After the raid, NJWeedman revealed to the public who this Rat really was, leading to the prosecutors eventually charging him with witness tampering for revealing the name of the informant. For the supposed reason of witness tampering, NJWeedman was arrested at his girlfriend’s home in Parsippany-Troy Hills on Friday, March 3, 2017. He was in the middle of a Facebook Live video when “SWAT team members burst through the door,” AP wrote later that day. NJWeedman was in handcuffs by 1:00 PM. He would not be free from prison until more than 400 days later on May 24, 2018.

He was indicted earlier on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, by a grand jury, and a warrant for his arrest was issued the same day. He was arrested on the two charges of second-degree witness tampering and third-degree witness tampering. A week earlier, Superior Court Judge Anthony Massi ruled that NJWeedman did not need to know the name of the informant to build his defense case for drug charges.

NJWeedman appeared at an afternoon detention hearing on Tuesday, March 7, before Superior Court Judge Peter Warshaw. Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor Stephanie Katz argued that day for NJWeedman to remain imprisoned in order to protect the identity of the informant. NJWeedman responded that he never put the informant at risk. “I’m known as a pretty peaceful pothead,” he told NJ.com. Under the state’s new bail reform laws, which went into effect January 1, most defendants could expect to be released with no monetary bail, but this excluded certain conditions like danger to community, flight risk or threat to a witness. And of course NJWeedman was accused of the last of these. Therefore it did not come as a surprise when Judge Warshaw ordered NJWeedman to remain behind bars, pending the outcome of the witness tampering case against him. Judge Warshaw cited the safety of the informant in the case, and feared NJWeedman would post about the informant if given internet access. Like previous judges who dealt with NJWeedman, Judge Warshaw perceived Weedman’s rebellious nature as the true threat to civilized society. “He will do what suits him. He will do what he wants,” Judge Warshaw was quoted saying in NJ.com, adding, “the only way to protect further intimidation of the witness is to detain the defendant.” NJ.com reported that NJWeedman had just over a month to appeal Warshaw’s ruling, and if an appellate court court sided with him, he would be released. “Otherwise,” the article concluded, “his freedom rides on the outcome of his case.”

NJWeedman, photo from the Trentonian.

On Friday, March 17, 2017, NJWeedman’s appeal attorney, John Vincent, filed a court brief to appeal the ruling by Judge Anthony Massi that kept NJWeedman detained pending the outcome of the witness tampering case. In the brief Vincent argued that NJWeedman never threatened or intimidated the informant on social media. Furthermore, he argued, NJWeedman was enacting his first amendment right when he posted the name on social media. NJ.com released an article the next day quoting from the brief: “The real motivation of the state’s application is to punish Mr. Forchion for his political activism.”

The friction between NJWeedman and his attorney Edward Heyburn came out into the public light again on June 14, after NJWeedman had an interview with NJ.com. The article was titled, “NJ Weedman accuses former attorney of perjury.” Heyburn filed a request in March to be relieved as NJWeedman’s attorney, after providing the service pro bono since May 2016. “He has posted incriminating statements on the internet that only serve to destroy his defenses and to increase the work that I need to mitigate the damage,” Heyburn said in the filing. On May 8, Heyburn’s motion to be relieved as NJWeedman’s attorney was granted by the judge. NJWeedman applied to represent himself in court and won. He was assigned assistant council through the public defender’s office.

NJWeedman told NJ.com that Heyburn was complicit in the witness tampering charge and therefore should be charged as NJWeedman’s co-defendant. NJWeedman referenced one time when Heyburn emailed him: “I want to send someone out privately to talk with him. Shake him up. Do you know his number? Name?” NJWeedman said Heyburn was, “Throwing (him) under the bus.” NJWeedman dismissed Heyburn’s filing complaints about his actions. “He knew about everything. He gave me legal advice,” NJWeedman said. NJ.com wrote: “In emails between Heyburn and Forchion, obtained by NJ Advance Media, the two frequently discussed the identity of the confidential informant.” NJWeedman “has given his consent to have the emails published and discussed publicly, though he stressed that he is not releasing the emails out of malicious intent, but rather to provide support for his argument.”

On June 21, NJWeedman’s press release about his 11-day “hunger strike for bail” was shared online to Send2Press. He began his hunger strike on June 13. “Nothing I did was illegal,” NJWeedman said from jail. “Nothing I did was wrong. In fact, I actually thought I was in accordance with the law per the advice of my attorney.” In June, according to NJ.com, he filed a motion to reopen his detention hearing in order to be freed from jail prior to his trial. After several hearings his motion was denied again in August.

Weedman’s photo used in Send2Press article.

NJWeedman ended his roughly two-week hunger strike at the behest of the reality TV show personality Dog the Bounty Hunter. On July 12, NJ.com wrote an article on NJWeedman and Dog the Bounty Hunter. “In a handwritten letter sent to NJ Advance Media, Forchion said, “‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ has come to town to champion the cause (bail is a right). I just talked to ‘Dog’ on the phone and he urged me to end this strike.””

NJWeedman appeared in court for a motion hearing on July 12 in his orange jumpsuit. On the back of the jumpsuit was the standard black print that read: “Mercer County Correction Center.” But always the rebel, NJWeedman wrote above the print on his back in black sharpie pen, “Political Prisoner 420.” Representing himself, he argued for a new detention hearing in order to win his freedom. According to NJ.com, NJWeedman “moved to reopen the detention hearing, by presenting material information to Judge Anthony Massi that he said was available to him at the time of discovery, but was not accessed, and laid blame on his then attorney.”

NJWeedman also argued that he made a Facebook video prior to his arrest claiming he wasn’t guilty of witness tampering. Judge Massi did not make an immediate decision that day, however, but agreed that he would watch one of the social media videos, which were placed under a protective order. Judge Massi said he would make his decision on reopening the detainment hearing in a few days, but eventually denied NJWeedman’s motion.

NJWeedman was back in court on Tuesday, August 1, 2017, to once again argue for Mercer County Superior Court Judge Anthony Massi to reopen his detention hearing. NJWeedman argued that emails between himself and his former attorney, Edward Heyburn, outlined their legal strategy, and qualified as new material evidence to get a new hearing. In response to NJWeedman’s claims, Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor John Boyle said that NJWeedman did not present any new information related to detention and did not require revisiting the detention hearing. Judge Massi announced he would make a decision by Friday. As the Trentonian reported a few days later, NJWeedman’s motion was eventually denied by Judge Massi.

NJWeedman attempted to appeal Judge Massi’s ruling in appellate court on September 13, 2017. But the state appeals court upheld several recent decisions by the judge presiding over his witness tampering case. Since being jailed from March 3, NJWeedman filed three different pre-trial motions, with each taking some time to decide. Judge Anthony Massi ruled those days were excluded “from the 180 days the state has to either try, release or move to detain a defendant once they have been indicted — as part of the new bail reform laws that started on Jan. 1, 2017.” NJWeedman was furious, saying those days should not be held against him. The appeals court disagreed, however, claiming to have found “sufficient facts in the record to support the trial court’s finding that the three motions took a total of sixty-seven days from filing to final disposition by the trial court.” The motions that took 67 days included his former lawyer Heyburn asking to leave the case, NJWeedman filing to represent himself and his effort to re-open his detention hearing — which was denied. “If he’d won the appeal, the 180-day speedy trial clock would have expired on Sept. 1, 2017, but it now is extended to Nov. 6, 2017, the decision says.”

On October 13, 2017, a judge sided with the prosecutors “in four pre-trial motions, all which went against Forchion.” The title for the NJ.com article on October 14 read, “NJ Weedman Loses 4 Motion in Witness Tampering Trial.” Judge Massi approved the fourth pre-trial motion, which ordered NJWeedman not to be allowed to defend himself during the trial with jury nullification. He also couldn’t speak about other on-going cases. “I am disappointed that the judge would eviscerate my defense and render my trial unfair,” NJWeedman said. NJWeedman still had a stand-by lawyer for his upcoming trial, Christopher Campbell.

The 15 jury members for the witness tampering case were chosen on Friday, October 20. But on Monday night a juror was granted permission to be excused from the case. On Tuesday morning, October 24, the jury was dismissed for the morning, while NJWeedman argued for his motion to have the witness tampering indictment against him dismissed. Judge Massi dismissed NJWeedman’s motion because it wasn’t filed within the proper timeline. Opening statements were pushed back to Wednesday, October 25, 2017. Mercer County Assistant Prosecutor John Boyle told the jury that it was their job to decide if “a reasonable person” would interpret the activist’s actions as a threat. The jury also began to hear witness testimony from a Trenton police detective.

The jury reached a decision on the two witness tampering charges on Thursday, November 9, 2017. Wearing a red and black suit, NJWeedman gave a thumbs-up to his supporters behind him in court as the jury entered the room. The jury then announced they found NJWeedman not guilty of the second-degree witness tampering charge (the more serious charge), but was hung on the third-degree count of the same charge. NJWeedman was visibly excited to have won the one charge and delayed the other via a hung jury, and he leaned into the microphone and thanked the jury as they exited the room. This was not the first time NJWeedman had a hung jury or had charges thrown out against him because of his skill with jury nullification; but the practice is so rarely used that it’s always scary what the final result will be.

When the jury left the room NJWeedman threw his hands up in the air and made an oral motion to Judge Massi to re-open his detention hearing. Judge Massi noted the request but said it needed to be properly filed. NJWeedman was excitedly quoted in the NJ.com article on November 9, while both assistant prosecutors - Stephanie Katz and John Boyle - were silent after losing to someone not properly trained in law and who they accused of being a threat to the community. How embarrassing!

The prosecutor’s office now had 120 days to re-try NJWeedman, or dismiss his charge. On Thursday night NJWeedman was already saying he was ready for round two. His friends and fiance were excited that he won, but the fact is he still remained behind bars and could be held for months. Now he would be detained pending trial. And that was the whole point: the state was punishing NJWeedman by silencing him in a jail cell and throwing away the key for over 400 days. This silenced NJWeedman from complaining about police brutality and police harassment at his place of business and worship, as well as police conduct of using drug addicts as informants against a nonviolent political activist who used his building as a caring community area for thousands in the city. And let’s not forget that the raid and NJWeedman’s jailing destroyed his business.

On November 17, 2017, NJWeedman filed a motion for his release after winning his second-degree witness tampering. Prosecutors filed a response on December 11. On January 12, 2018, Judge Massi denied NJWeedman’s release and ordered 57 days of “excludable” time to count against his trial clock. This is exactly what happened in the fall of 2017, when the court gave him 67 days of excludable time before his November trial. Judge Massi treated NJWeedman like a common thug, saying “no amount of monetary bail or non-monetary conditions … assure the safety of others.” NJWeedman appealed the January 12 decision to the appellate court on January 29. He even filed an appeal to the NJ Supreme Court on February 26, 2018, but the petition was denied. In response to NJWeedman’s appeal from the January 12 decision, prosecutors on March 1 asked for more than 20 days of excludable time.

On April 16, 2018, NJWeedman appeared in court for his pre-trial hearing, marking his first court appearance since he won in November. “He entered the brightly lit courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit with the words “Political Prisoner #420” scrawled on the back. His dreadlocks were pushed back. He still had bags under his eyes. He was still tired.” Judge Massi declared that jury selection for the retrial would begin May 8. NJWeedman still had Christopher Campbell as his standby council, but he planned on representing himself in court.

Opening statements began Tuesday, May 15, 2018, in front of Judge Massi in Mercer County Superior Court. This was now his second witness tampering trial, and he told the jury during opening statements he was not guilty of third-degree witness tampering (meaning not involving force), but was “a peaceful, patriotic pothead.” Of course, anyone looking at him knew he was a pothead because of the “bright green marijuana print suit” he was wearing that day. In response, Assistant Mercer County Prosecutor John Boyle declared in opening statements: “You’re going to evaluate if this conduct would cause someone to not want to come in, to avoid testifying.” Boyle added: “Of course, it’s going to rattle you.”

NJWeedman in court May 15, 2018. Photo by Michael Mancuso of NJ.com.

When NJWeedman addressed the jurors he took a knee. “Not to beg,” NJWeedman said, but to show his full support of Colin Kaepernick. Both Weedman and Kaepernick protested police brutality and institutional racism. In NJWeedman’s case he was cited, harassed, and arrested by the state over 20 times in a span of just over a year. This does not happen to anyone the state is not directly attacking. This only happens to freedom fighters who directly challenge the over-reaching power of the state, or to minorities who were targeted from day one of the War on Drugs. NJWeedman fit into both of these categories.

NJWeedman acknowledged that he mailed items to the informants house, but this act was not illegal. He said a motion to protect the informants identity was filed but was never signed. NJWeedman denied the prosecutions accusation that he attempted to silence the informant: “I’ve always wanted him to testify to the truth.” He added: “Nothing I did was ever designed for him not to testify to the truth.”

The prosecution attempted to discredit NJWeedman by having the parents of the informant testify that day. They described the mail that came to the family home that included a copy of a civil suit NJWeedman had added the informant’s name to, and copies of a newspaper article about it, where he wrote “rat” and called him a drug addict. The informant’s father at one point said the person sending this must be a “sick person,” and the mother expressed fear for her life. Therefore the whole court watched a black man be denounced as being “sick” and a threat to the community, even though anyone who has followed NJWeedman’s career for the last 20 years knew this was a ridiculous accusation. There is a major difference between someone saying they received some mail they prefer not to versus someone saying their lives are so threatened that the system must keep this single black man in jail in order to protect the (white) community. It was just another day in a racist court room in the U.S.A.

Closing statements were held on Tuesday, May 22. Assistant Prosecutor John Boyle reiterated that the multiple packages NJWeedman sent to the informant’s home could be construed as threatening. NJWeedman, in his hour-long closing statement, reiterated that he was merely exercising his First Amendment right by sending mail to the informant. He claimed he was not involved in witness tampering and that he did not go against a protective order concealing the informant’s identity. “At no time did I deliberately break this order, because there was no order,” NJWeedman said.

The jury rendered its decision in Mercer County Superior Court in Trenton on Thursday, May 24, 2018. The jury found NJWeedman not guilty of witness tampering. Weedman raised his arms in the air after the verdict. His supporters cheered as he invited the assistant prosecutor, John Boyle, to his victory party. NJ.com’s article that day was headlined, “NJ Weedman Acquitted of Witness Tampering at 2nd Trial.” For the second time in a row he beat the witness tampering charges against him by defending himself in court via jury nullification. After all this NJWeedman still awaited trial on the marijuana drug dealing charge from when he allegedly sold to the informant in 2016 — the case from which the witness tampering charge stemmed from.

Chris Campbell, NJWeedman’s standby public defender, confirmed NJWeedman was innocent the whole time: “I guess it goes to show that you can be provocative or rub people the wrong way, but that’s not a crime.” NJ.com pointed out the ridiculous state-hunt against NJWeedman in the May 27 headline, “NJ Weedman Spent 400-Plus Days in Jail. Turns Out He was Not Guilty.”

NJWeedman had to go back to the Mercer County jail to be officially released. He was released by the evening to a group of supporters who welcomed him back to freedom. One of his first acts was to light up and smoke in front of the jail’s sign. The following day NJWeedman held a press conference at his business in Trenton,where he explained his legal strategy of clapping-back at the court for holding him for 447 days. He claimed the city unconstitutionally imprisoned him and ruined his business. A few days later he traveled to Atlanta to go over his case with famed civil rights attorney Mario Williams.

NJ.com video made on May 29, 2018.

Dennis Malloy of NJ 101.5 station wrote an opinion piece on May 29: “Weedman Suing Trenton for 4.47 Million, I Hope He Gets Every Dime!” The article was fully in support of NJWeedman with lines like “taking a man’s freedom and denying bail on such charges is undeniably over the top;” and, “No one, no matter how coarse or inappropriate should be punished to this extent for basically, as the trial showed, nothing.” As he concluded the article:

It just shouldn’t have taken 16 months of his life to reach this conclusion, and that’s why he’s suing. I’m not a fan of lawsuits, especially when they’re going after taxpayer dollars. But in this case we should all be rooting for Ed Forchion to win, and win big. You may not think so and you would probably behave in a more civil manner than him, but this could happen to anyone of us, and it can’t be tolerated. Not now, not ever!

This statement reiterated the fact that NJWeedman is part of a long-tradition of political activists who were silenced by the state. For example 1960's rebel Abbie Hoffman said: “You measure a democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.” And this makes us reflect on what Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

The Mercer County prosecution eventually dropped the remaining criminal charges against NJWeedman. He learned of the dropped charges from a reporter on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Even though most people would have been thrilled to have the charges dropped, WNJeedman was actually disappointed because he looked forward to the fight in court. NJWeedman explained to NJ 101.5 that it was nothing but a “police vendetta” against him, while he told NJ.com that it was “a campaign of terror by the police department.”

The NJ.com article on June 6 was titled: “Cases Against NJ Weedman Up in Smoke: Prosecutors Cite Changing Views of Marijuana.” Prosecutors cited “the recent shift in the climate of marijuana legislation in New Jersey” for downgrading or dismissing charges, which of course winked at Governor Murphy’s call for legalization, as well as the recent changes in bail reform. Prosecutors announced that most of the charges against NJWeedman would be dropped, while a few would be prosecuted as misdemeanors in Trenton Municipal Court, where jail time was unlikely. NJ 101.5 listed the indictments against NJWeedman from 2016–2017 that were downgraded:

In the 11-count indictment, four charges of fourth-degree possession of a drug were downgraded to disorderly persons charges of possession of marijuana less than 50 grams.
A third-degree charge of possession of a drug, which had not yet been presented to a grand jury, was downgraded to a disorderly persons offense of possession of marijuana less than 50 grams.
A separate charge of cyber-harassment — which had been filed by a Trenton cop who Forchion had called a pedophile in a video posted by someone else on Facebook — was downgraded to a petty disorderly persons offense. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the charge is unconstitutional but prosecutors got a grand jury to indict.

According to NJ.com, the prosecution dismissed most of the charges and downgraded five to “disorderly persons offenses.” An Associated Press article on June 6, titled “Charges Against Pot Advocate NJ Weedman Downgraded, Dropped,” wrote that “three pending cases” against him were downgraded or dismissed. NJWeedman had some fear going to Trenton Municipal Court because it could turn into fines, penalties against his drivers license and more attacks on his business. Even though dropped charges were great, he was aggravated he lost 15 months of his life for nothing. “I got dragged through the mud and I was left to dry. I got beat up by the government,” NJWeedman said. “Just to dismiss it, on numerous levels it’s a letdown.”

NJWeedman spent over 400 days in jail, after being viciously harassed and attacked by the state because of his political advocacy. NJWeedman lost a lot, like his thriving business as well as his eyesight. Just like Malcolm X, NJWeedman went into prison without glasses but came out wearing glasses. Malcolm X said that while in prison he had “read so much by the lights-out glow in my room” that he needed glasses afterward, although his biographer Manning Marable wrote that in addition to bad lighting Malcolm most likely suffered from a nutrition-lacking diet. NJWeedman blamed his worsened eyesight on his lack of access to marijuana, which is medically proven to help with glaucoma and eye problems.

NJWeedman shifted gears midway through 2018 as his federal civil lawsuit against the city, first filed in March 2016 after police harassed him, had made its way to court. Back on March 19, 2018, the court requested NJWeedman to consolidate his amended complaints under Civil Action № 3:16-cv-1339. On April 9, 2018, NJWeedman’s new counsel filed an amended complaint asserting 31 counts against the city of Trenton as well as various city employees. NJWeedman amended the complaint on May 14, 2018, to add claims for special damages. On August 28, 2018, NJWeedman filed another amended complaint adding defendants John Boyle, Stephanie Katz and Municipal Prosecutor Kimberly Wilson. The defendants responded to the civil action on November 19, 2018.

NJWeedman court date landed on January 5, 2019, but only the day before Judge Sheridan signed a request to delay the hearing until February 20, 2019. (NJWeedman created a Facebook event page for the court hearing, “My Turn Now: Federal Oral Arguments”). NJ.com dedicated an article to him on February 17, laying out how his federal civil lawsuit against the city had made its way to court, and NJWeedman hopes to reach a settlement around that.

Due to a snowstorm and Gov. Murphy calling a state of emergency on February 20, NJWeedman’s court hearing was pushed back to March 20, 2019. On March 20 the judge announced that the decision would be announced at a later date.

NJWeedman at his hearing on March 20. 2019.