This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

The Oldest Dope Fiend in California

            For the past couple of months I’ve been doing local-history research for a client, and it reminded me of a tale I encountered earlier, the story of the oldest dope fiend in California.
            It happened in the late 1940s, when Watsonville, a farming community 90 miles south of San Francisco, was cleaning itself up after being known, during the War, as “Sin City.” A new police chief, Frank Osmer, was quietly pressuring the operators of brothels and gambling joints to scale back or move, but was hardly taking a hard-line, ideological position on vice.
            Osmer had grown up alongside many children of Japanese and Chinese descent, and had developed an appreciation for their culture. A part of that culture at the time was that in what remained of Watsonville’s once-booming Chinatown, there were a few restaurants that had back rooms where men, most of them older, would retreat to smoke opium. The chief viewed that as a cultural activity, and as long as it was done quietly and they didn’t try to peddle the stuff to kids, he was inclined to let it go. And of course, if a serious crime should occur in Chinatown, he expected the owners and habitués of those establishments would tell him whatever he needed to know.

A Nefarious Criminal Arrested

            From time to time it was necessary to raid one of the establishments in order to maintain appearances, but Osmer tried to spread the police activity around so that no one place took the brunt of it. And the legal establishment took a similarly enlightened view.
In a talk to the Friends of the Library years ago, Osmer recalled one instance, in which an over-zealous state narcotics officer along on a raid had arrested a 93-year-old man for narcotics possession. It wasn’t clear if the elderly gentleman slept through the warning, or was simply so old, slow, and befuddled that he was the only one who got caught, but caught he was.
 The state drug-enforcement officers were giving themselves high-fives for having captured the oldest dope fiend in California, and were intent on making an example of him. The case went before local Superior Court Judge Leo Atteridge, who took one look at the non-English-speaking nonagenarian and asked the defense attorney, “How old is he, anyway?
“Ninety three, your honor,” came the response.
            “Oh, hell,” said the judge. “Thirty days probation, and tell him not to do it again.”

“Objection, Your Honor!”

            Immediately the state attorney, assisting the local DA, leaped up to object, arguing strenuously that state law required a prison term, not probation, for possession of a narcotic as serious as opium. The judge quickly cut him off.
            “Young man,” he said,  “I am the judge. You are an attorney. I can give this man probation, which I just did. I can put people in jail, too, and you may be next if you keep talking back to me.”
            And that was the end of it. A few years later, a zealous young attorney campaigned for the local prosecutor’s job, claiming, perhaps because of cases such as this, that the county was soft on vice.
            Everyone I tell the story to today sees it differently. They feel the judge showed no more than common sense and compassion in handling the matter as he did, and I agree. Increasingly, our laws are tying the hands of judges and denying them the discretion to judge a case on its own merits. This story is a perfect illustration of why that’s a bad idea.