(CN) - The Yuma County sheriff must return marijuana seized from a woman at a Border Patrol checkpoint because she has a medical card, an Arizona appeals court ruled.
Border Patrol agents had found marijuana in the car of Valerie Okun after stopping her at a checkpoint near Yuma, Ariz., just outside the borders of Mexico and California.
Okun beat the drug charges Arizona filed against her by showing that she is a member of the California Medical Marijuana Program and thus able to possess marijuana for medical purposes under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act.
Arizona balked when a county judge ordered the sheriff to return the seized marijuana to Okun.
In addition to claiming that turnover would violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, Arizona claimed that state law requires forfeiture of any marijuana seized by law enforcement.
A three-judge appellate panel affirmed the judgment for Okun on Thursday.
"Because Arizona law allows Okun to possess the marijuana, it is not subject to forfeiture under state law," Judge Diane Johnsen wrote for the panel.
Furthermore, the sheriff "is immune from prosecution under the federal law for acts taken in compliance with a court order," according to the ruling.
The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act protects registered patients who possess an allowable amount of marijuana from "arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner, or denial of any right or privilege, including any civil penalty or disciplinary action by a court." Visiting patients with identification cards issued under another state have the same protection under the act.
There is no threat that Okun faces prosecution under federal law, the court found.
Law enforcement officials have immunity under federal law under circumstances like these, as the sheriff "has no 'personal stake' in whether the federal Controlled Substances Act might invalidate Okun's right under the AMMA to possess an allowable amount of marijuana," Johnsen added.