Virginia Woman Jailed for Pot Use Before Abuse Hearing Wants Charge Dropped

"I will never feel safe reporting abuse again because doing so does not protect me"

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Demonstrators gathered at a courthouse in Loudoun County, Virginia, on Thursday to support a woman who was sent to jail as she testified about domestic abuse because she admitted to smoking marijuana before the hearing.

Katie Orndoff was testifying on Sept. 7 against her former partner, who was charged with striking her, when the judge interrupted her testimony and sent the jury out of the room.

Video released by the court and provided to News4 by Orndoff’s attorney shows the moment.

Judge James Fisher asked Orndoff whether she had taken any drugs or medications that day.

"You appear to be under the influence right now. For example, you just rocked in your chair again and it almost fell over. I want to know what you’ve taken prior to coming in here today that has affected your demeanor?" Fisher asked.

Demonstrators are planning to gather Thursday at the Loudoun County courthouse to support a woman who was sent to jail as she testified about domestic abuse. The judge said he would not schedule a hearing to consider vacating the contempt charge. Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey reports.

"I mean, honestly, I smoked marijuana. ... You can search my car," Orndoff replies, throwing up her hands.

After she further confirms that she used marijuana at home that morning, Fisher tells Orndoff that she's in contempt of court.

"I’m going to sentence you to 10 days in the county jail. I’m going to remand you to the custody of the sheriff," Fisher said.

Orndoff is stunned.

“Me?! What? Oh my god. I — what? No. I didn’t even do anything,” she cried.

Orndoff bonded out of jail after two days. Both the Commonwealth’s attorney and her lawyer filed a motion to vacate, to wipe away, the contempt charge.

Orndoff’s attorney approved the use of their client’s name and the courtroom video. News4 generally does not release the names of people who report domestic violence, unless they wish to be named. 

In its filing, the Commonwealth’s attorney argued there was no evidence of impairment.

"There were no slurred words, falling asleep on the stand, nor any difficulties in her gait — observations expected for someone under the influence of intoxicants," the filing says.

The case has captured statewide attention. Some say it illustrates how even though marijuana use is legal, it’s not always viewed that way.

"While it's certainly one of the most egregious cases we’ve heard about, it's not the only one. We hear every week from Virginians who continue to be singled out and discriminated against for their lawful use of cannabis," Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini said.

Orndoff's supporters claimed Thursday she was questioned by a judge without legal representation, jailed without being read her Miranda rights, and stripped of her due process during the two-and-a-half days she spent in jail.

"The majority of which she was required to be naked, wrapped by a blanket in solitary,
because she was inexplicably placed on suicide watch," Lisa Sales with Virginia NOW said.

Prosecutors filed motions to vacate the contempt charge but Judge Fisher denied them. Fisher granted a bond hearing on the condition that Orndoff submit to a drug screening first.

Loudoun County Commonwealth's Attorney Buta Biberaj said it is extremely rare for a judge to order a drug screening for a bond hearing.

"In all of my years - in 27 years of practice - this is my first experience," Biberaj said.

Democratic Delegate Mark Levine wants Virginia's Judicial Review Board to investigate Fisher.

"It's not just sadistic behavior, which I think it is, it's absolutely lawless," Levine said.

It has been legal in Virginia since July to possess and cultivate small amounts of marijuana.

The Commonwealth’s attorney and alleged victim said they fear the case could discourage other women from reporting abuse.

"I will never feel safe reporting abuse again because doing so does not protect me," Orndoff wrote.

The defendant’s attorney said the judge’s assessment proves Orndoff is an unreliable witness. The attorney asked that the case against the alleged abuser be dismissed.

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