dove and stars

First Amendment is latest casualty of our mad 'war on drugs'

These are not happy days for federal prosecutors and their loyal assistants, the federal judges of Northern Nevada.

In recent years, the G-men claim to have busted multiple international drug conspiracies in the Reno-Lake Tahoe area. But after all the free arrest publicity in the usually docile local press, the one thing prosecutors like Nevada U.S. Attorney Kathryn Landreth and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony White (chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in Reno) haven't been able to scare up are major convictions.

Sixteen purported mobsters were put on trial in Reno last year on charges of belonging to a $140 million marijuana smuggling ring run by wealthy Squaw Valley, Calif. developer Ciro Mancuso.

When that case failed to generate any convictions, federal prosecutors offered sweetheart deals to the wise guys for their agreements to testify against their own attorney, Patrick Hallinan of San Francisco, who the feds then dubbed the ''actual ringleader.''

The six-week trial of Hallinan ended March 7 in Reno. The jury stayed out long enough to eat one free meal on the government, acquitting Hallinan on all charges after six hours.

''Most of the government's witnesses came across as well-scripted during government examination,'' jury foreman John Tonner told the Associated Press this week. ''During cross-examination, it all fell apart. ... When it came to important points, they were lying.''

How frustrated are prosecutors?

Last June, as the $30 million, 11-month trial of her 31-year-old son and 51-year-old ex-husband on cocaine and methamphetamine charges was wrapping up there (the federal government seized all the assets of ''drug kingpin'' Jay Regas - $3,000 - and ended up giving him more time than Manuel Noriega), wholesale florist and 50-year-old grandmother Yvonne Regas of Reno had some ''True or False'' brochures, produced by the Fully Informed Jury Association of Helmville, Montana, placed under windshield wipers in the courthouse's public parking lot.

Eight months later, on Feb. 17, the federal government charged Yvonne Regas with conspiracy and three counts of jury tampering.

Jury tampering is approaching an individual juror and trying to sway his vote in the jury room. Yvonne Regas did not do that.

What was this hideous brochure, so terrifying that federal prosecutors and the FBI are willing to flush the First Amendment, willing to send this grandmother away for years, for merely daring to distribute it in a public parking lot?

''True Or False?'' the cover of the little brochure asks, ''When you sit on a jury, you have the right to vote your conscience.''

Inside, the Fully Informed Jury folks answer ''True ... But it's extremely unlikely the judge will tell you this, because in most states the law doesn't require that you be fully informed of your rights as a juror. Instead, expect the judge to tell you that you may consider 'only the facts' of the case and may not let your conscience, your opinion of the law, or the defendant's motives affect your decision.

''How can anyone get a fair trial if the jurors are told their sense of justice doesn't count?

''A lot of people don't get fair trials. Far too often, jurors actually end up apologizing to the person they've convicted!'' the brochure goes on.

Although she says she's purposely avoided speaking to any of the jurors, Yvonne Regas says jury tears are precisely what she saw when Jay Regas, now 52, was sentenced to life in prison, and young Troy Regas, 32, to five years, after the jury convicted Troy, for instance, on only two of 38 charges, and the most amorphous ones at that: ''conspiracy'' and ''continuing criminal enterprise'' (whatever that is), in a case where prosecutors showed no videotape, no money, not even any drugs.

''FIJA,'' the proposed Fully Informed Jury Act, ''would require that trial judges resume the former practice of telling jurors about their right to judge both law and fact,'' the dangerous brochure goes on.

Resume the ''former practice''?

''Yes, it was standard procedure in the early days of our nation and before, in colonial times,'' the brochure goes on. "The pages of history shine upon instances of a jury's exercise of its prerogative to disregard instructions of the judge," wrote the D.C. Court of Appeals in 1972, "for example, acquittals under the fugitive slave law."

Then comes the really scurrilous stuff, as the FIJA brochure quotes such dangerous radicals as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, our second president, the latter saying of the juror two centuries ago: ''It is not only his right, but his duty, to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.''

''My son was facing 450 years,'' says Yvonne Regas. ''I thought the jury should vote its conscience, it wasn't for any other reason.''

Prosecutor Ron Rachow confirms that this case is all about the brochures. "Her attorney may think this is a First Amendment issue, but not all speech is constitutionally protected," he told me March 15.

The Fully Informed Jury Association is soliciting funds for the defense of Yvonne Regas, who is now due to go to trial in Reno in late October or early November. Mail contributions to Lawyers for Liberty, 1718 Peachtree St. NW, Suite 499, Atlanta, Ga. 30309.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Readers may write him at P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, Nev. 89125-0070, or e-mail His column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.
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