September 23, 2012

Ex-sheriff's crime-fighting experience helps in new job: defending the accused

Lawyer Mark Dion uses his problem-solving skills in legal conflicts arising from medical marijuana.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

A man from a small York County town had his medical marijuana stolen and was getting no satisfaction from the local police, who were skeptical that a burglary had been committed. As a result, he couldn't get his insurance company to cover the loss.

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The law enforcement mementos on the walls of Mark Dion’s Portland office are clues that he’s not a typical criminal defense lawyer. One specialty now: medical marijuana cases.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Enter Mark Dion, former cop, former sheriff, now criminal defense attorney. He was able to convince police that the theft was legitimate, clearing the way for his client to get compensation.

Medical marijuana has created a new legal frontier of conflicts and interpretations, as police try to enforce the law without running afoul of Department of Health and Human Services rules and other legal protections.

That has opened opportunities for attorneys like Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland deputy police chief. He's carving out a specialty in medical marijuana cases as part of his overall work as a criminal defense lawyer.

Now that Dion represents folks similar to those he used to arrest and lock up, former colleagues sometimes roll their eyes at his change of allegiance.

"Some of them (officers) say, 'Oh, you've gone to the dark side,'" Dion said in a recent interview. But some also have referred clients to him.

Dion, 57, spent 21 years in the Portland Police Department, experience that included heading up its bias crimes task force and community policing.

He was elected sheriff in 1998, running as an independent in a largely Democratic county. As sheriff, he oversaw the state's largest jail -- with as many as 400 inmates -- in addition to the county's law enforcement division. While he held the job, he took classes at the University of Maine School of Law -- a practice that drew heat from critics who contended he was a part-time sheriff. He got his law degree in 2005.

In 2010, he opted not to run for re-election and joined with fellow University of Maine law school grad Jonathan Berry to form their own firm.

The two represent clients caught up in the web of conflicting state rules, laws and a public that remains divided on the issue of marijuana as medicine -- even though it's been legal since 1999.

Berry represents Safe Alternatives, which has the license to dispense medical marijuana in Aroostook County. When it opened in Frenchville, the small town swiftly passed a retroactive ordinance regulating dispensaries. The dispensary is challenging the ordinance in part because it usurps state oversight of medical marijuana.

Berry said Dion's background often helps resolve problems before they go to court.

"He was a good law enforcement officer because he was pragmatic, a good chief executive in law enforcement because he was pragmatic," Berry said. "He has what the world needs more of, which is pragmatism."

Dion says representing criminal defendants isn't contrary to police work. In fact, he says it isn't that much different than the community policing he helped pioneer in Portland in the 1980s.

The essence of both jobs is problem-solving, he said.

Dion's small office on India Street in Portland -- an area he patrolled as a young officer -- includes mementos from his earlier careers: a letter of commendation from President Clinton that followed a visit to the Parkside Community Policing Center by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, and an article in The New York Times about his proposal to give seized marijuana to medical patients who need it.

His police experience gives him insight into the real world of investigations and arrests, so when he reads an officer's report, he can imagine what the scene was like.

"I can't help but read it as a street officer might. I've been a detective. I can read between the lines. I know the playbook," he said. He sees that as a strength.

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