Thanks to a voter-approved mandate, a Valley man’s first drug offense drew two years of probation instead of jail time, although he was convicted on multiple counts.
Under Proposition 200, non-violent, first-time drug offenders like Nathan James O’Donnell, 22, are guaranteed probation and recovery programs with no prospect for prison or jail.
A jury in December found O’Donnell guilty of possessing heroin, but not selling it, likely avoiding a prison sentence.
O’Donnell told the court he is thankful for the second chance and is getting his life back together, despite three failed attempts at drug treatment. Gila County Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill didn’t sound optimistic at O’Donnell’s sentencing Tuesday.
“You ought not to waste that second chance,” Cahill said.
O’Donnell reportedly tested positive for methamphetamine before sentencing.
“The results of those laboratory tests would suggest that you are and that you will have trouble, problems and violations on probation if you continue to abuse drugs,” Cahill said.
Payson police arrested O’Donnell in January of 2013 after watching him for some time, believing he was selling heroin in the Payson area, according to a presentencing report.
Officers stopped O’Donnell for driving on a suspended license and found more than nine grams of heroin and drug paraphernalia under a seat in the vehicle as well as heroin in his pocket. O’Donnell said the drugs in the vehicle were not his since it was not his vehicle.
O’Donnell maintained his innocence and went to trial in December, facing five counts, including selling, transporting and using a narcotic drug and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Officers had also arrested O’Donnell on another charge of possessing drug paraphernalia and aggravated DUI, but the Gila County Attorney’s Office dismissed those before trial. Shawn Fuller, chief deputy attorney, said the GCAO only charges someone if it believes they can get a guilty verdict.
“In other words, we charge the defendant with those criminal offenses that are supported by the facts and that can be proven based on, again, a ‘reasonable likelihood of conviction,’” he wrote in an e-mail to the Roundup.
At trial, jurors learned that drug task force agents had trailed O’Donnell, conducting surveillance because they believed he was a drug dealer.
After pulling him over, they found heroin and paraphernalia in the vehicle and on him. “Mr. O’Donnell denied ownership to this item and stated the vehicle did not belong to him despite the fact he was observed performing mechanical work on the vehicle for quite some time,” according to a police report.
O’Donnell later tested positive for marijuana, opiates and amphetamine and told a probation officer he has been using drugs since age 15.
He said he was introduced to heroin at age 20 and used the drug daily from January of 2012 until November. Things got worse when a relationship ended several years ago and he told probation that he entered into self-destructive behaviors, eventually losing his job, stability and respect of his family, according to the presentencing report.
Jurors acquitted O’Donnell of using heroin and found him guilty of three counts of possessing the drug, but not selling it.
O’Donnell said he agreed with the outcome of the trial, according to probation.
“I am blessed with a second chance on life,” he wrote the court. “I love this opportunity at life with some guidance. I am off of drugs, hard working, happy, have my family’s love and respect back, my dignity and self respect back. The road to recovery was and is hard, but you just have to keep going and remember what you want for yourself.”
O’Donnell told probation he has been off heroin for three months, but continues to use marijuana and a prescription painkiller.
Although O’Donnell was acquitted of selling, he was convicted of possessing drugs and paraphernalia. Being his first offense, he was sentenced under Proposition 200 guidelines.
In 1996, voters approved Prop. 200, designed to give first-time offenders a chance to clean up. In addition, it helped free up space in state prisons for violent offenders.
Last year, 20 percent of the inmates in the Gila County jail faced drug charges. Inmates in for drug arrests tied with warrant arrests.
Cahill Tuesday sentenced O’Donnell to two years probation per the recommendation of the probation department and Joy Riddle with Gila County Attorney’s Office.
“I think the prosecutor, Ms. Riddel, has it exactly right that you should have an extended period of time on probation of two years although my prediction is that we will find out sooner than that whether you will do well on probation,” Cahill said. “I hope you do and I hope you take advantage of this chance.”
O’Donnell must complete 360 hours of community service and a substance abuse screening and any recommended treatment.