Situation NORML

Why Kirk Obear, a former chief of military justice, works pro bono for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws

Published in 2011 Wisconsin Super Lawyers — December 2011

“My mother was from the Woodstock generation,” says criminal defense attorney Kirk Obear, “and never really imagined that any of her children would end up in the military.”

But he did. Obear started as a combat videographer in the U.S. Air Force in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. After earning a psychology degree and a J.D., he became a JAG officer, then the Chief of Military Justice and an assistant U.S. attorney. He received a medal for valor under enemy fire in the Persian Gulf War and the Meritorious Service Medal for his work as a defense lawyer. Following disagreements with superiors on the harshness of fraternization cases, he was shifted from prosecution to defense.

Though his mother couldn’t imagine him in the military, the military probably can’t imagine one of his current pro bono activities: Obear is on the National Legal Committee for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Obear wants to be clear, though. “I’m not involved with [NORML] because I want people to smoke marijuana,” he says. “I want to work with a group of people that are very knowledgeable with search and seizure law. Basically, we are on the cutting edge of what’s happening with law enforcement agencies and with how the Fourth Amendment is being applied throughout the country and in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

NORML’s National Legal Committee consists of criminal defense attorneys working pro bono, who frequenly represent clients charged with marijuana offenses. The attorneys follow the legal issues that impact marijuana consumers and keep the organization informed regarding relevant trends in law enforcement. “We brainstorm and collaborate on our approach to search and seizure motions,” he says, “such as how to challenge how a dog sniffs evidence in a vehicle search, or how to challenge the reliability of the testimony of confidential informants.

“If you can successfully challenge the manner in which a search warrant was executed,” Obear says, “you do two things: You’ve indentified where the law is still strong and where it’s weak in that regard; and you’ve probably taught the law enforcement officer what not to do next time.”

Obear has handled all kinds of cases since hanging a shingle in Sheboygan in 2008: white-collar crimes, sexual assaults, computer crimes, drunk driving and drug offenses. “If it’s a criminal charge, I’ve probably represented somebody in that situation,” he says.

He counsels aggressive representation. “When the client knows that you did everything within your power to protect them,” he says, “and [it’s] one of those cases where the person’s found not guilty, and you know that you were the reason why an injustice didn’t occur, that’s very satisfying.”

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