While all attorneys are encouraged to provide pro bono legal services, Dover attorney Tom Donovan is focusing his free legal advice on a cause he has taken to heart: defending people charged with marijuana possession.
“I feel I’m part of a system that is treating people unfairly with laws that prohibit the consumption of marijuana,” Donovan said. “As a lawyer, I think I can give back to the community by helping these people for free.”
Donovan said the American Bar Association recommends attorneys provide at least 50 hours of pro bono work a year, primarily to help people of limited means who may have no other resources for their defense.
Someone charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in Delaware can face fines up to $1,150, six months in prison and the loss of their driver’s license, said Donovan, who called those penalties “draconian” and some of the most severe in the country.
The 41-year-old defense attorney obtained his law degree in 2000 and has worked as both a public defender and as a contract attorney for Kent County Superior Court. He estimates he’s handled more than 1,500 felony cases in the past 14 years.
“My perspective is that I think everyone should be treated fairly,” he said. “When I see an injustice, when I see someone treated unfairly, I’ll stand up and say something. That’s what I’m doing; I’m standing up and saying something.”
Donovan noted, however, that his offer of pro bono work extends only to charges of misdemeanor marijuana possession. Police often level other charges, such as possession of drug paraphernalia, or providing marijuana to minors, which are not covered by his offer.
Donovan said he has supported legislation in the just-concluded General Assembly session that would have decriminalized possession of marijuana in some cases. Although HB 371 made it out of committee in the House of Representatives, it was not taken up by the Senate before its June 30 adjournment.
Donovan said he believes marijuana possession of any amount should be legal for those older than 21 and marijuana sales should be regulated by the state. That, he said, would eliminate black market activity surrounding the drug, which he added should be classified with another legal drug: alcohol.
“Marijuana has been around for thousands of years and it’s certainly well documented as having medical benefits,” he said. “Objectively speaking, marijuana is a lot safer than alcohol, if you look at it from that point of view.”
Donovan admits his decision has not proven popular with some in the legal community.
“I’ve gotten a little bit of pushback, but I’m resilient,” he said. “I won’t let it affect me.”
Fellow attorney Benjamin Schwartz, also of Dover, said he supports Donovan’s stance.
“If that’s not putting your money where your mouth is, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Schwartz added that he doesn’t care about marijuana, per se, “But I think it’s really cool that Tom has a cause he feels so strongly about that he’s willing to work for free to make the point that the law should change.”
Donovan said he’s received six inquiries about his offer since first announcing it on July 31. He estimates he’ll give up $1,500 to $2,500 in fees for every case he takes on.
“What I’m doing isn’t about the money or lack thereof,” he said. “I never looked at it that way. I’m just doing what I think is right.”