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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Store owner loses appeal in drug case

A Spokane convenience store owner who sold boxes full of pseudoephedrine pills had “reasonable cause” to believe the drugs were being used to make methamphetamine, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Joga Johal should have known the boxes of pseudoephedrine he was selling at his store were going to meth cooks, “not to cure runny noses,” the appeals judges said.

The recent ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the August 2003 conviction of Johal, who operated JK Gas & Grocery on North Nevada.

Johal was among 16 Spokane-area convenience store owners and pseudoephedrine wholesalers indicted in 2002.

The indictments came as part of an attempt by the Justice Department to put a dent in illegal methamphetamine manufacturing by going after businesses selling large quantities of cold remedies to meth cooks.

In August 2003, Johal was convicted by a U.S. District Court jury in Spokane of three counts of possessing and illegally distributing pseudoephedrine.

That conviction came after an April 2003 trial ended with a hung jury.

Johal was found guilty of selling boxes of the cold and allergy medicine to undercover law enforcement officers and individuals with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington.

The federal law used to charge Johal said the defendant was selling excessive quantities of pseudoephedrine “with the knowledge or reasonable cause to believe” that the over-the-counter drug would be used to manufacture methamphetamine.

Testimony at Johal’s trial showed he sold cases of pseudoephedrine for cash and often secreted the drugs in brown paper bags or empty beer boxes.

His attorneys appealed the conviction, contending prosecutors had failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Johal had “reasonable cause to believe” the cases of cold pills were going to meth cooks.

The appeals court said the law requires that a defendant “subjectively know facts that either cause him or would cause a reasonable person to believe that the ingredients are being used to produce illegal drugs.”

“This standard limits the likelihood that a defendant will be prosecuted for mere inadvertent conduct,” the appeals court said.

As for Johal’s conviction, the court said, his drug sales “would have alerted a reasonable person that the (pseudoephedrine) pills were being bought to make methamphetamine, not to cure runny noses.”

In December 2003, Johal was sentenced to 70 months in federal prison. But that sentence was stayed while Johal appealed his conviction.

In the meantime, a U.S. Supreme Court case will require Johal to be resentenced by Judge Fred Van Sickle. No date for that sentencing has been set, but it is expected to occur before the end of the year.

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