Zero tolerance

Wise County Attorney Stephen Hale thought his decision to routinely dismiss cases of misdemeanor pot possession made perfect legal and moral sense. But it turns out the voters of his largely rural jurisdiction just said no.

Hale, a Democrat seeking his second term, lost on November 5 to political newcomer Todd Durden, a Republican and family law attorney from Boyd, in Wise County. Durden received 48 percent of the vote compared to Hale's 46 percent--a slight loss that Hale attributes to "a bunch of attack ads that were misleading and such. But the people apparently believed him, and that's what counts."

The 43-year-old Hale was first elected county attorney in 1992, and was responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor crimes in Wise County, about 40 miles north of Fort Worth. From the first day he took office, Hale shocked folks inside and outside of the legal establishment by dismissing cases in which defendants were charged with possession of four ounces or less of marijuana. The Dallas Observer first wrote about Hale's policy in a February 1, 1996, story, "Prosecutor under fire."

Hale also dropped most first-time DWI cases or plea-bargained them to the lesser charge of reckless conduct, resulting in probation or community service--rather than jail time--for the offenders.

Hale reasoned that his actions helped speed the wheels of justice. Hale, who was himself charged with possessing less than an ounce of marijuana in Florida in 1974 (he received deferred probation in the case), sees misdemeanor possession as essentially a victimless crime. "As I see it," he told the Observer last winter, "possession of four ounces or less of marijuana is a victimless crime, and there's no point in tying up the system and ruining someone's life over it."

When Hale took office in January 1993, the daily court docket often numbered six pages or more. At the end of three years, Hale had trimmed his case docket to three pages per day, and pleased judges, defense attorneys, and small-time pot users in the process. Hale, in fact, had the endorsement of most of Wise County's legal community--judges, attorneys, even the sheriff's office, whose deputies routinely arrested the dope smokers and drunk drivers whom Hale routinely let off.

"As a law enforcement officer, it's my job to arrest drug users," says Doug Whitehead, Wise County chief sheriff's deputy. "I bring them in and put them in jail. But Steve felt that he was upholding his office by dismissing some of those cases, and I don't fault him for it. Overall he did a good job with that office."

The newly elected Durden was on vacation and could not be reached for comment. But David Isbell, Wise County Republican chairman, says, "We expected to win this race, and we were thrilled. The people of Wise County feel like they've become kind of a dumping station for drug users. We feel like people are just moving up here like it's a safe haven because they know they won't be prosecuted for their crimes."

Hale says his opponent's ads charged him with protecting drug dealers and for dismissing 100 percent of his drug cases. "That was never true," Hale says. "I don't dismiss cases against juveniles, and I would never protect a drug dealer."

Come January, Hale will return to private practice in Decatur as a criminal defense attorney. A career in politics, though, is not in his future. "I'm happy to be getting back to civilian life again," he says. "Basically, politics suck."

He says he is also debating whether to pursue a case against Durden for possible Election Day improprieties. Sheriff's deputy Whitehead says his office has conducted a "preliminary investigation" into claims that Durden entered several polling sites on Election Day and talked with voters, a class C violation of the Texas Election Code.

"We have talked with a couple of election judges who say that Mr. Durden entered the polling places. One of the judges asked him to leave, and he did. We have no evidence that he swayed the election in any way," Whitehead says. Any official action against Durden must come from the Wise County District Attorney's Office, which has not filed a case.

Isbell calls the claims of impropriety against Durden politically motivated and "ridiculous."

"You have to understand the politics of Wise County, which have always been Democratic. All of the election judges are Democrats," Isbell says. "Legally, we had a right to have Republican clerks at every polling place. But I had to fight just to get people here to accept that. I'm not surprised that those same judges are crying foul now."

As for Hale, he says he spent Election Day as far away from the voting booth as possible. "I voted early in the day and then I spent the day babysitting my 10-year-old nephew. He was recovering from appendicitis. I bought him a cheese dog at the Sonic, and we spent the day watching war movies.

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Holly Mullen

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