Willie Nelson was arrested last Friday by federal Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, Texas after they seized six ounces of pot off his tour bus. If convicted, the 77-year-old country legend could face extended jail time — the offense carries a minimum sentence of 180 days in jail and a maximum sentence of two years plus a $10,000 fine.
But the arrest doesn't sit well with Texas attorney Dick DeGuerin, a criminal defense lawyer who recently represented Tom Delay and country singer Billy Joe Shaver, and was lawyer to David Koresh during the 1993 FBI siege of the Branch Davidian ranch outside Waco, Texas. DeGuerin questions the lawfulness of the search, which he says occurred 100 miles from the Mexican border. "It needs to be contested," he says.
"It's supposed to be a checkpoint only for aliens, and [agents] overstep their authority all the time," he says. "I've had several cases from that checkpoint and they just use the opportunity to check out anybody they want to. If you have long hair, if you're driving a van or it looks like you're from California or you look like a hippie, they do profiling."
DeGuerin's advice for Nelson? "He needs to get a good lawyer," he says. "I wish him the best."(It's unclear who's currently representing Nelson.)
Texas personality (and perennial gubernatorial candidate) Kinky Friedman also believes agents overstepped their boundaries. "The real crime here is that it occurred in a county that is one of the headquarters of the Zetas," he says, referring to the growing Mexican criminal drug cartel. "These guys don't have bigger fish to fry? The Zetas are taking over their county and they're busting Willie Nelson. That shows a real lack of priorities."
Before Nelson's Thanksgiving break, Friedman joined the singer on the road for three days while the duo worked on an upcoming fiction book together. "He rolls 24 hours a day," says Friedman. "I couldn't take it — staying out all night, smoking dope. And I was the youngest person on the bus." (Friedman is 66.)
Nelson has long advocated for the legalization of marijuana and has a history of arrests. In January, six of Nelson's band members were issued citations in North Carolina for reportedly possessing moonshine and marijuana. In 2006, he and four others on his bus were issued citations at a traffic stop in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana after authorities seized nearly 1.5 pounds of marijuana and 3 ounces of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Nelson and tour manager David Anderson both paid a $1,024 fine and served six months of probation. "Both bus drivers were over 50 years old," Nelson said at the time. "The other guys were 60 years old. My sister is 75, I'm 73, so it's like they busted an old folks home."
The alleged six ounces that Nelson was carrying exceeds the four-ounce amount that triggers a felony. "Many prosecutors and DAs disagree with how strict Texas law is," says DeGuerin. "It was good several decades ago when they reduced small amount possessions to misdemeanors. Unfortunately, it left larger amounts to be felonies. I think the whole system needs to be reviewed and changed."
(Mickey Raphael, Nelson's longtime harmonica player, previously told Rolling Stone that the singer is in good spirits. "He said he feels great — he lost six ounces.")
"It's kind of surprising, but I mean we treat him like anybody else," Hudspeth County Sherriff Arvin West told the El Paso Times . "He could get 180 days in county jail," he added. "If he does, I'm going to make him cook and clean."
That being said, DeGuerin doubts Nelson will see any jail time. "Well, he's Willie Nelson," he says. "He's an American hero."
"Willie is a great historical troublemaker," Friedman added. "That's the kind that's moved mankind forward throughout history. Why wouldn't his life reflect his art?"