Hall Of Shame Award: Lawyer Prosecuted And Imprisoned For Possession Of 1.6 Grams Of Marijuana

*Excerpt from The Champion, August 1994, by Barry Tarlow

In United States v. Czuprynski (1993), the Sixth Circuit reversed a marijuana possession conviction on the grounds that a search warrant for Edward Czuprynski’s law office was neither supported by probable cause nor based on a good faith belief of probable cause.  One face that distinguishes this otherwise unremarkable case as a worthy recipient of the coveted Hall of Shame honors is that government lawyers apparently had nothing better to do than waste our scarce tax dollars prosecuting a case based on two joints.

There are any number of innocent reasons why marijuana might be found in someone’s home.  For example, recently, the police were investigating a burglary at the home of “law and order” California Assemblyman Jim Costa.  He was a principal author of the state’s new “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” criminal sentencing law.  When the police came to Costa’s Fresno condominium in response to a burglary report, he was surprised to learn that they had found marijuana.  The assemblyman promptly issued a press release saying, “I’m not sure if it was dropped by the burglars.”  Unlike Ed Czuprynski, Costa’s case was being investigated by “impartial” law enforcement officers.  Fresno Police Lieutenant Roger Enmark concluded:  “It was not known who owned the marijuana.  We have no way to tell whether the burglars brought it in…”  See Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1994 p. A3.

But back to the sordid Czuprynski affair.  This is perhaps the first ever federal indictment for an individual charge of marijuana possession not involving either federal property or an international border crossing.  It reveals a truly chilling abuse of power.  In their zeal to obtain a conviction, federal prosecutors endorsed the purposefully deceitful manner by which state investigators obtained the search warrant that was invalidated on appeal.  Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that this case illustrates how unsupervised prosecutors and investigators who are politically and vindictively motivated can destroy an individual’s life and livelihood.

Ed Czuprynski was a successful criminal defense lawyer in the Bay City, Michigan area.  His problems apparently began in February 1992 when he fired his associate Judith Sawicki for cocaine abuse.  Sawicki is an admitted use of nearly every scheduled controlled substance.  Soon thereafter, Sawicki filed assault charges against Czuprynski.    

About a month later, Bay County Assistant Prosecutor Tim Kelly attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a search warrant for Czuprynski’s office, apartment, and car.  Two district judges of the 74th District Court in Bay City flatly refused to sign the search warrant, which was submitted along with an affidavit in which Sawicki stated that some of her books, papers, and work product were still inside Czuprynski’s office.  

Nearly two weeks later, Kelly again tried to obtain a search warrant for Czuprynski’s home and office, but this time in connection with a drug investigation that was spurred by Sawicki’s new allegations.  In the warrant’s supporting affidavit, Sawicki alleged for the first time that she used to smoke marijuana with attorney Czuprynski in his office on a daily basis.  However, Sawicki “did not recount any specific dates for these events.”  Sawicki also stated that she had previously purchased marijuana from Czuprynski in his office, but she could only vaguely place these events during sometime “in January or February 1992, sometime after Christmas.”  Moreover, the affidavit “did not support an inference that Sawicki had seen Czuprynski since the date she [was] fired, … almost a month  prior to the affidavit.”

Prosecutor Kelly tried to bolster the warrant application by submitting a supporting affidavit from Officer Greg Tait of the Michigan State Police in Bay City, as well as two warrant returns for small amounts of marijuana found in Czuprynski’s possession back in 1974 and 1983.  However, Tait’s affidavit provided “no evidence corroborating Sawicki’s reliability or credibility in any way.”  Furthermore, the 1974 state conviction occurred when Czuprynski was still in his mid-20s, prior to his legal career.  As to the 1983 search, a jury exonerated Czuprynski of state marijuana possession charges in 1984.

The enormous deficiencies in the warrant application were apparent to both Tait and Kelly.  The record reveals that Tait knew that “other police departments had declined to involve themselves with Sawicki’s complaint.”  Tait also resubmitted the application to one of the 74th district judges who previously declined to sign the records warrant, and that judge again refused to issue a warrant.

Prosecutor Kelly was undeterred.  He advised Tait to submit the application to Magistrate Boes, who ultimately signed off on the so-called warrant at issue.  However, the record indicates that Magistrate Boes had previously served as the Bay County purchasing agent at the same time that Czuprynski was serving as the county’s [elected] auditor, and that Czuprynski attempted to have Boes fired from his position for alleged improprieties relating to certain sweetheart county works contracts [1979].  Moreover, Tait admitted that he knew “hard feelings” and “disputes” existed between Czuprynski and the Bay County Prosecutor’s office.

In striking down the search warrant, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the “warrant application in this case not only lacks information supporting Sawicki’s truthfulness, but also it gives rise to the probability that Sawicki was making here … allegations with a bad motive after Czuprynski fired her.”  Interestingly, in Czuprynski’s separate trial on the assault charges alleged by Sawicki, he was acquitted and the trial judge remarked that Sawicki was “obviously a liar.”  [The judge also informed the jury he was in total agreement with their verdict of “not guilty and sharply criticized Prosecutor Tim Kelly, stating “much of this trial has been your slinging mud at someone hoping something would stick.”] The Sixth Circuit strongly condemned prosecutor Kelly’s effort at “judge-shopping” to find a personally vindictive magistrate to issue the warrant against Czuprynski.  The U.S. government’s decision to make a “federal case” out of Czuprynski’s possession of minute amounts of marijuana represents an endorsement of the state officials’ [primarily Tim Kelly and Greg Tait] disreputable investigative efforts to obtain the search warrant.

Why did this absurd prosecution become a “federal case?”  Edward Czuprynski sees the reason as petty political vindictiveness.  After the two joints were found in his office, two weeks went by without any arrest or charges filed. When Czuprynski subsequently learned about the prior unsuccessful attempt to obtain a records warrant for his office [on the former employee/attorney’s claim of assault against Czuprynski of which he was not found guilty], he filed a grievance claim against both Sawicki and then-Bay County Prosecutor George Mullison.  Within days after the claim was filed, Mullison turned Czuprynski’s case over to the feds, where a number of former Bay County Assistant Prosecutors now worked as Assistant United States Attorneys.  If Czuprynski’s string of bad luck was not long enough, the federal judge who was randomly selected to preside over his trial was none other than a former prosecutor, who once served as a colleague of George Mullison on a local prosecutors association’s executive board.

The indictment and conviction led to a 51-week suspension of Czuprynski’s law license.  The Sentencing Guidelines’ range for his conviction was 0 to 6 months, but the trial judge departed upwards and imposed a 14-month sentence based on his 1984 acquittal on state marijuana charges and the two decade-old state marijuana conviction.  Had the case been sensibly filed as a state offense, it would have been a misdemeanor with no bar sanction imposed.

In oral arguments before the Sixth Circuit, Judge Boyce Martin, Jr., himself a former United States Attorney, called the federal government’s prosecution of Czuprynski “the stupidest waste of public money … I’ve ever read about … [A]n institution … that allows for this man’s prosecution is a sad commentary.”  Perhaps Judge Thomas Wiseman, Jr., summed it up best when he remarked, “everything about this case has a distinct, bad odor.”  Judge Cornelia Kennedy was the lone dissenter in the panel opinion.

This case has been devastating to Czuprynski.  He was forced to shut down his practice for 13 to 14 months.  His personal finances were depleted, and he was imprisoned without bail for a total of 7 ½ months while fighting his appeal.  Furthermore, for nearly the past two years he has been subject to almost weekly urine testing.

Things might finally be looking up for Ed Czuprynski, though.  After his conviction was overturned, his law license was reinstated and he has slowly began to rebuild his legal practice.  Also, there has been a ground swell of public support for him in Bay City; people seem to realize that Big Brother can just as easily destroy their lives as it did his.

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