At Aspen sentencing hearing, teen encouraged to turn life around
Abuse by his father, who just last week was deported for a third time, and a lack of an authority figure have fueled an Aspen High School student’s instability and his purported daily use of cannabis, his attorney and relatives said at a sentencing hearing Monday.
“(The teen) is unlike 99 percent of the kids here in Aspen,” defense attorney Ryan Kalamaya said. “He said that he really started smoking marijuana when his dad was put in jail, in part for things done to him, and there are a number of people in this community that use drugs and alcohol just to escape what they have going on at home, and (the teen) is unfortunately a 16-year-old doing the same thing.”
The high school junior appeared Monday in the chambers of Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols for a sentencing hearing for underage possession of marijuana and resisting-arrest convictions.
Nichols accepted the plea deal, which includes a one-year deferred judgment and one year of supervised probation along with community service for the student, who was suspended from school for a week following the arrest. He also will be subjected to marijuana tests and has apologized to the Aspen Police Department.
Rare are local, juvenile criminal cases that generate the large amount of publicity that the high school student’s did, but his Feb. 6 arrest was video-recorded by nearby peers at the public bus shelter located off of Maroon Creek Road by the Aspen school campuses. The recording of the take-down arrest spread on social media, inciting a community debate on police tactics and teen attitudes toward authority and drug use. During the incident, some students taunted arresting officer Adam Loudon, who had to call for backup, with expletive-laced insults. The arrest involved officers applying pain-pressure techniques and bringing the yelling, defiant boy to the ground.
Prosecutor Andrea Bryan and Kalamaya disagreed on some of the facts of the arrest.
Bryan said Loudon believed the boy was rolling a joint when he approached him, and she said the boy concealed a black container in his right sleeve. And once the cameras started rolling, it “became obvious that (the boy) would start to put on a show for the camera,” Bryan said. After his arrest, police found nearly one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana in the teen’s backpack, Bryan said.
Kalamaya, however, pointed out that police didn’t find a black container, and the marijuana wasn’t discovered until they searched his backpack. Fourteen officers responded to the arrest, Kalamaya said.
“I know Ms. Bryan disagrees with me, but I do not think there was probable cause for the arrest in the first place,” he said. “But (the teen) also understands there’s a legal process, and he shouldn’t have resisted regardless of their basis for his arrest.”
With the case behind him, numerous challenges are in store for the teen. He is flunking out of school and has tested positive for marijuana since the arrest, Bryan said.
“It’s very apparent that he has a problem with marijuana,” Bryan said. “He did test positive after pleading guilty, so between the time of being arrested and being sentenced, he tested positive, and as this court has said a million times to other juveniles in this type of situation, regardless of how you view marijuana, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that it’s terrible for a young mind.”
Bryan, however, favored a rehabilitative approach over a punitive one.
“He’s only 16. He has his whole future ahead of him, and it’s apparent he has a good mind, he can write — he’s a good writer. But that kind of addiction is only going to get in the way of his future,” Bryan said. “And the court has seen the real effect that marijuana can have on juveniles. It truly affects their mental health, their ambition, their ability to hold and maintain jobs and, ultimately, their ability to succeed. And he needs to understand that and take it seriously.”
The student’s sister and mother spoke on his behalf, saying that he once lived with an alcoholic father who often ran afoul of the law and regularly abused his children.
“Growing up, we suffered a lot of child abuse,” the sister said. “Our father would beat us because he is an alcoholic.”
The sister said it has been normal for her and her mother to work seven days a week to support the family. They run a catering business.
“He had to go through losing an authority figure in his family, apart from not seeing us,” she said. “And we were constantly working, and we really didn’t have the time to speak with him. If he was going through his issues in school, we didn’t have time to attend to his needs.”
Her brother works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summers to help the family, she said.
“Any break he gets in school, he’s constantly with us working,” she said. “And that responsibility has been put on him. He has a lot of responsibility put on him that doesn’t come with being a 16-year-old boy, and I think that has to do with a lot of frustration inside of him that he needs to take out.”
The boy declined to speak when Nichols asked him to, but the judge engaged him with questions that he answered.
“I’ve always struggled in school, even middle school,” he said. “I never had the best grades ever. I’ve always had to work for (my family). I’ve always had that responsibility. I didn’t have a choice.”
Nichols noted that the teen has shown respect for his family and the court, and he’s fortunate that he was let back in school. She also asked him if he understood why authorities and parents were concerned about his pot habit.
“Because of the long-term effects of it,” he said.
“Actually, it’s the short-term and long-term effects,” the judge said. “It will prevent you from addressing your frustrations, as your sister talked about, and it’s obviously interfering with your ability to do well in school, which everyone knows you could do.”
The judge encouraged the student to do well.
“You’ve got a lot going for you, and you’ve certainly heard about your challenges,” she said. “And I don’t want to diminish them; these are more challenges than many people face in life. But your mother and sister have shown some strength in front of these challenges, and to me, you’ve shown your strength, which is why you were offered the deferred (sentence).”
Kalamaya and Bryan shared common ground on setting him on the right path.
“No one can force him to do anything,” Kalamaya said. “He’s going to have to make better decisions moving forward.”
School counselor Josh Berro, who has worked with the teen and his family over the years, said he’ll closely monitor the situation.
“I think (the teen) is very bright,” he said. “He has the makings of a good student. He knows that I want his marijuana issue to be addressed. … Our teachers with all students are very flexible and accommodating, and I know they will work with (the teen) as long as he goes to class. I will do whatever I can to help him.”
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