Church founders can’t escape drug charges

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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Individuals — even church founders — cannot use the “cover of religion to pursue secular drug trafficking activities,” a federal appeals court panel has ruled.

In February 2006, Border Patrol agents stopped a car driven by Danuel Dean Quaintance and Mary Helen Quaintance and another car driven by Timothy Kripner just outside Lordsburg, N.M. The agents found 172 pounds of marijuana in Kripner’s car. The Quaintances and Kripner were arrested and indicted on drug-possession and -distribution charges. Federal authorities alleged that the Quaintances devised a plan to purchase with Kripner large amounts of marijuana from Mexico to help raise money to bail out Mary Quaintance’s brother, Joseph Butts, who had been arrested on drug charges in Missouri.

The Quaintances in 1991 founded the Church of Cognizance, organized around the principle that marijuana is a deity and a sacrament. The couple claimed a religious-based defense to the drug charges under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In order to assert a defense under RFRA, a defendant initially must show that a government action substantially burdens a sincerely held religious belief.

A federal district court in New Mexico found that the couple’s beliefs were not religious and added that they failed to show that those beliefs were sincerely held. The couple later pleaded guilty to the drug charges but in their plea reserved the right to appeal the court’s rulings on their religious-based defense.

On appeal, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 19 affirmed the denial of the couple’s RFRA defense in United States v. Quaintance. The panel agreed that evidence in the case established that the Quaintances had failed to establish that their beliefs about marijuana as a sacred substance were sincerely held.

“As the district court noted, numerous pieces of evidence in this case strongly suggest that the Quaintances’ marijuana dealings were motivated by commercial or secular motives rather than sincere religious conviction,” the panel wrote. Kripner had testified before the lower court that the couple regularly purchased marijuana from him and talked about the drug in terms of business.

The appeals court noted that the purpose of the trip to Mexico to buy marijuana was to raise enough money to bail out Butts. Kripner also testified that the Quaintances had purchased cocaine from him — a charge that the couple denied.

The panel concluded that “the record contains … overwhelming evidence that the Quaintances were running a commercial marijuana business with a religious front — particularly in this transaction aimed at securing bail money for Ms. Quaintance’s brother.”

The appeals court found no need to address the district court’s other finding that the couple’s beliefs were not religious in nature.

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