The Long Arm of the Law

Ben Pollard

Copyright 2024 by Ben Pollard


Image by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. https://Terms.Law from Pixabay
Image by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. https://Terms.Law from Pixabay.

In preparation for our upcoming tour Down Under, Esther and I applied on-line for visas to Australia and New Zealand. She got both of her visas but my Australian application hit a snag. Both countries want to know if applicants have had a criminal conviction. Australia calls this a "Character Declaration." Fifty years ago I was convicted and spent a week in jail for possession of a minor amount of marijuana. New Zealand asks if a conviction entailed substantial jail time. If not you are treated like everybody else, which explains my successful New Zealand application. Australia treats all offenses the same, however, requesting "details of any criminal conviction." Unfortunately, we found it impossible to transmit the detailed information requested. We made repeated attempts. We even had a Department of Home Affairs agent in Sydney on the phone for the better part of an hour trying to help us, to no avail. We decided we had no choice but to cancel our reservations. We were facing thousands of dollars in penalties for cancelling our tour, and the penalties were only going to escalate if we delayed our decision. By way of background to this story I offer an account of my criminal past that I wrote a few years back.

It was 1972. I'd been in Alaska since March, and I was past due for a trip "Outside." Early December, darkest days of the year was the ideal time for getting away. I would fly to San Francisco to visit my sister, then to Scottsbluff Nebraska to see my brother, Tom, and finally on to Boston for Christmas with my parents. I made it as far as Scottsbluff before the long arm of the law caught up with me.

My suitcase had gone astray on the flights from San Francisco through Denver to Scottsbluff. I left Tom's local phone number for the Frontier Airline agent in Scottsbluff to call when they found the suitcase. That evening the call came informing me the suitcase had arrived on the next flight following mine and was being held for me behind the counter. It was late, so I told the agent to leave it where it was and I'd check it in for my trip to Boston the next morning.

I got to the airport a half hour before my departure. The agent at the check-in counter asked me, "Is that suitcase on the shelf over there behind the counter yours?" "Yes. That's it", I replied and asked her to go ahead and check it in for my flight to Boston. That taken care of I settled into a seat in the departure lounge to wait for the boarding call. Ten minutes later I noticed a pair of sheriff's deputies at the check-in counter; the agent was pointing at me. Now what?

The one I figured was the senior deputy addressed me thus: "Am I correct in understanding that you are Benjamin Pollard and that gray suitcase is yours." I nodded in the affirmative. "Then I'm placing you under arrest for possession of marijuana. You are coming with us. We're taking you to the courthouse for booking." They escorted me out of the terminal and into the rear seat of their cruiser. I noticed there were no door handles or window cranks back there and a sturdy steel grill between myself and the cops in the front seats.

I was only half paying attention to the conversation in the front during the eight minute drive to the courthouse. The subject being discussed: spotting agitators heading north to join the Wounded Knee uprising. My thoughts were elsewhere. In 1972 Alaska was one of the few places in the world where marijuana possession was legal. There must have been a drug-sniffing dog in one of the airports, and I had forgotten about the small baggie containing a lone joint and a tiny foil-wrapped piece of hashish.

As I posed for mug shots and got fingerprinted I had my predicament explained to me. A recently enacted law in Nebraska called for a mandatory sentence of seven days in jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It could have been worse; if this had happened in Texas it could have meant a sentence of seven years. Seven days would be bad enough. I was booked but I couldn't leave until I made bail. I had plenty in travelers checks, but the Sheriff had a policy not to accept travelers checks for bail. I had to call Tom at his office and have him come with the requisite cash. A date was set for my arraignment and trial the week after Christmas. I called my boss in Juneau for an extension in my leave time, booked flights to Boston and back to Scottsbluff and resumed my ruined Christmas vacation.

At the appointed hour I was back in Scottsbluff to face the music. In a small court room a man in a suit I took to be a judge sat behind the bench and asked me how I pleaded. "No Contest", neither guilty nor innocent. "Well, I find you guilty of the charge. Sheriff, take this man to the jail." Arraignment and trial had taken less than a minute. At the jail, I was relieved of my belt, frustrating my suicide plans. Also keys, coins, anything metallic, and that thick novel I brought along thinking I would finally get around to reading it.

My home for the week was a six cell "tank", each cell six feet by eight, with a bed consisting of a steel shelf bolted to one concrete cell wall. An odd-looking stainless steel fixture serving the dual purpose of sink and toilet was bolted into a corner of each cell. Floor-to-ceiling bars with sliding doors completed the decor. On the other side of the bars high on a concrete block wall was one small window, through which I could see the bare branches of a tree, my only connection to the world outside.

The law required people serving those seven day marijuana possession sentences to be segregated from the general jail population. During my stay I was sole prisoner in that category, and my "tank" was physically isolated from the rest of the jail. In effect, I served my sentence in solitary confinement. Apart from deputies, the only people I saw were jail trusties, inmates doing time for relatively minor non-violent crimes and free to move unescorted throughout the facility. Trusties brought me my meals, typically a bologna sandwich, a packet of Cheez-its and something equally unappetizing to wash it down.

I was getting desperate for something to read, so I asked a trusty if they had any books down in the jail and could he bring me one. On his next round he brought me a couple of what in his world pass for books: well-used back issues of True Detective Magazine. Of course I thanked him for those but I tried again, this time with a more detailed description of what I was hoping for. "You know, really thick books, with hundreds of pages and stiff covers, about so big." It worked. The next day he brought me real books: a pair of encyclopedia annual supplements covering the important events of calendar years 1967 and 1968. Lucky for me. Those happened to be the two years I spent overseas protecting the country from the "enemies of freedom," so I had lots to catch up on.

My only other diversion came when visitors from another planet came calling. It happened three times during my stay, groups of a dozen or so adolescents escorted by a uniformed deputy. They would slowly file past my cell, staring intently at me like I was some sort of zoo specimen. The deputy would be telling the kids they better behave or this (me) could be their fate. I figured these were Sunday school classes or maybe scout troops. I repaid their stares with a friendly smile.

Six days of terrible food and boredom had passed when a deputy told me I was getting the seventh day of my sentence off for good behavior. I asked him to let Tom know to come get me. I got the bail money refunded, retrieved my belt and other confiscated possessions, and was released, my debt to society paid in full. That evening over supper Tom showed me a couple of stories he had clipped from the local paper. The first featured the headline "Alaska Man Jailed on Drug Charge", a story leaving out no details about my identity. The other story was about an un-named high school kid in eastern Nebraska let off with just a warning after being discovered with the bed of his pickup truck filled with "hemp" he had harvested along the railroad tracks. (note: in 1973 Federal law considered hemp as dangerous a drug as marijuana or opium)

Next July, back in Juneau on a scheduled break from another pointless North Slope summer field season, I told my boss I was quitting the Bureau of Mines. I said I planned to spend the rest of the summer painting my house. It was an amicable parting, we briefly talked about some professional differences we had, but he said he was sorry to see me go. Then he said something amazing. "So, has your quitting anything to do with the FBI investigation?" "What!" "Yes, we had agents here and around town too I think, asking about you, a Federal employee, using drugs." "Really!" Later it struck me that here in the Spring of 1973 the FBI had come all the way to Juneau, Alaska to investigate me, while back in Washington DC the President was distributing hush money to the Watergate plumbers.

I thought it might be interesting to share this incident from my criminal past.  Complication from that event rendered the Government of Australia unable to approve my request for a visa.  So here is a full account of my one and only ever criminal offense. . .so far.

Now 81 years of age, I grew up in Massachusetts but spent the better part of the next 60 years out West. Shortly before her death my wife and I moved from California to to be near our son and grandchild in Massachusetts. My second wife and I, both of us having lost our spouses, met at our 61st high school class reunion, married 2 years later and are now settled in Rochester, New Hampshire.

In 1965 I graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in Mining Engineering. I worked in mining and civil engineering for 34 years, 25 in Alaska. The work involved a broad range of engineering disciplines on projects throughout the Rocky Mountains West, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

As soon as we could afford it, we retired. After our son left Alaska for college, we followed suit, and began chasing butterflies in January on California's Central Coast. Retired now going on 25 years, my life continues to be filled with the pleasures of life-long learning and long walks in the woods.

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