Marijuana

Snared: How a South Phoenix Kid Got 16 Years in the Slammer for One Ounce of Weed

Photo illustration
Photo illustration Tom Carlson

There was no reason Trent Bouhdida had to go to prison. Certainly not for a 16-year stretch. But flukes and bad luck can do that.

It was May 14, 2015. Bouhdida was 21 years old. With another unbearable Arizona summer fast approaching, he found himself in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven across from his east Phoenix apartment in need of a soft drink.

There was a man, that day, hovering by the shop entrance, making conversation with passersby. He looked a bit rundown, hawking his sales pitch, undeterred by the convenience store patrons who ignored him and continued on their way. He was handing out business cards for a pawn shop, his newest venture. Bouhdida stopped for a moment to speak with him.

The man asked the South Mountain Community College student if he had anything he wanted to sell. Bouhdida did.

The man introduced himself as "Kev." But his real name, which Bouhdida would not learn until later, was Ronald Elcock. He had been working as an undercover Tempe Police Department detective for seven years. Over the next two months, at Elcock's requests, Bouhdida sold the cop a total of one ounce of marijuana.

And for that, Bouhdida would find himself locked up in state prison for more than a decade.

Arizona is known for having one of the most punitive sentencing regimes in the country for drug charges. For years, even simple possession of cannabis could mean a prison sentence. But since Arizona voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2020, Maricopa County's traditionally harsh enforcement of pot offenses has eased.

Now in Arizona, the cannabis industry is booming. Behemoth investors have set their sights on Arizona cannabis, eager to reap the profits of the green rush.

Bouhdida has watched this all unfold from a prison cell in the desert, out in the southern outskirts of Tucson. Phoenix New Times reviewed hundreds of pages of records in his case to examine how Bouhdida, a young Black man from South Phoenix, found himself trapped in the criminal justice system for an ounce of weed.

For those convicted of minor cannabis sales, there are few ways out, even now. Bouhdida has an initial clemency hearing on August 9, but Governor Doug Ducey, who would need to sign off on any commutation, is notoriously unmerciful when it comes to clemency cases. Proposition 207, which largely legalized cannabis in the state, brushed over such offenses, leaving Bouhdida, and others like him, in a kind of legal purgatory when it comes to relief.

New Times provided a number of questions to the Tempe Police Department about the case and the department's undercover work. "We have nothing to add," department spokesperson Hector Encinas wrote in response.

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell declined an interview request. However, MCAO spokeswoman Jennifer Liewer said, "It is important to note that the defendant had prior convictions when he was found guilty of selling marijuana and sentencing guidelines set by the legislature determined his sentence."


Caught in a Web

The two men standing outside the 7-Eleven that day in 2015 might have looked, from a distance, like friends. Both were Black. They were dressed casually. "I probably had some long shorts, basketball shoes on, a large T-shirt with some prints on the front," Elcock, the Tempe sergeant, later recounted at trial. "I dressed to match the clientele that I would be dealing with on the street."

Bouhdida was put at ease by Elcock's demeanor. And he was intrigued by the pawn shop pitch. He stopped to chat with Elcock, offering to sell him his old Samsung Galaxy phone and a pair of wireless headphones.

"I'm a firm believer in people starting their own businesses and doing something positive for themselves," Bouhdida explained in a recent phone interview, "especially if it's someone who looks like me, who grew up similar to me."

Bouhdida grew up in South Phoenix, near 40th Street and Baseline Road. He and his older brother were raised by a single mother. It was not always an idyllic childhood. And any semblance of that was cut short when, at age 15, Bouhdida found himself caught up, for the first time, in the justice system.

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Bouhdida with his son, now almost seven years old, who is growing up without his father.
Trent Bouhdida

In a meaningful sense, Bouhdida's story begins then, in 2009. That spring, Phoenix police were investigating a string of armed robberies in South Phoenix. They identified a group of teenagers as suspects. One was Bouhdida.

To prosecute the case, the county brought in April Sponsel, then a deputy county attorney and up-and-coming gang prosecutor, in her second year working on such cases.

More than a decade later, Sponsel would become the center of a major scandal at the county attorney's office. In the fall of 2020, she worked with the Phoenix Police Department to bring gang charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, basing the case on the demonstrators' use of the political slogan "ACAB" (All Cops Are Bastards). That, and alleged misconduct in earlier cases, cost Sponsel her job.

But back in 2009, no one was scrutinizing Sponsel's prosecutions of young Black teens in South Phoenix.

By all accounts that later emerged in court, Bouhdida did not carry out the robberies. He was never identified in a lineup. He was sitting in the back seat of a getaway car, registered to one of the other teens, as he had done on a few occasions, according to the teens' testimony.

"He claims he did not know what they were doing the first two times until they returned to the car with stolen property," a probation officer wrote in a 2010 sentencing report. "He denies receiving any financial gain from the offenses."

It was enough, though, for Sponsel to bring multiple armed robbery and criminal gang charges against Bouhdida, taking the extra step to charge him as an adult. Scared of the sentence he could face if he took the case to trial, Bouhdida pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery and one count of "assisting a criminal street gang," and found himself — at just 16 years old — facing a five-year prison sentence.

Prior to Bouhdida's sentencing hearing, a probation officer recommended that the kid receive a short jail sentence and probation instead of the five-year plea he had signed. "The defendant is only 16 years old, and it appears his role in the offenses is relatively minor," the officer wrote, saying that a prison sentence would only make it more likely for him to "re-offend" later.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Steven Lynch was not moved. He gave Bouhdida the full monty.

"They throw them in a cage like animals, and there you go, that's your punishment," Stewart said. "I think it was because it's Arizona. And it's prejudiced there. It really is." — Erica Stewart, Trent Bouhdida's aunt.

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"He was a little baby when he went in there," Bouhdida's aunt, Erica Stewart, told New Times from her home in Indiana. At the time, the case had felt familiar to her, she said. Bouhdida had fallen into the wrong crowd, and into a hostile court system.

"They throw them in a cage like animals, and there you go, that's your punishment," Stewart said. "I think it was because it's Arizona. And it's prejudiced there. It really is."

On the day Bouhdida met Elcock, he was still savoring his freedom, after spending the better part of his teenage years being incarcerated. He was, at that time, trying to turn his life around. "I made some very poor choices when it came to my associations," Bouhdida said, reflecting on his old case.

At the time, he had been having difficulties with his family, he said, and "chose to seek a sense of belonging wherever I felt accepted." Despite warnings from his mother to stay away from some of the other teens, he was drawn to them because they were older and invited him into their crowd.

Back in 2015, Bouhdida was living under the close watch of his probation officer. And, until he met Elcock, the 21-year-old was ticking all the right boxes. He worked full-time, balancing two jobs by the time of his arrest, one at a sports videography startup and another at a customer service company in Tempe. He attended parole appointments dutifully. "His probation officer seems to talk as highly of him as possible," the judge said at Bouhdida's 2018 sentencing hearing. When he was arrested, he had just five classes left to complete his degree.

Around the time that Bouhdida met Elcock, his girlfriend learned that she was pregnant. The two had lived together for the previous five months in an apartment in east Phoenix. And sometimes, in the afternoons, Bouhdida would stop at the 7-Eleven across the street.

The Sting

The Tempe Police Department's plan behind the local pawn shop sting was simple. A team of undercover officers would open a brick-and-mortar storefront. Some cops would work behind the counter. Another three would operate as scouts for the shop, going out on the street and prospecting potential clientele. "The idea was to get out there," Elcock explained at trial, "and eventually, they'll start trafficking stolen items to you."

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The 7-Eleven parking lot where "Kev" and Bouhdida met by chance encounter.
Tom Carlson

Outside the 7-Eleven, Elcock was passing out his card, asking people to call the shop. He and Bouhdida chatted for a bit, then exchanged numbers. That day, Bouhdida texted the cop photos of a few things he had lying around — "just old stuff I had in my apartment that I didn't need anymore," Bouhdida recalled. "I'm, like, legitimately trying to help this dude out."

At one point, Elcock mentioned to Bouhdida he was looking for "heaters," a dated slang term for pistols, the sergeant later explained at trial.

"I'm thinking he's talking about an actual heater you heat the house up with or something," Bouhdida said. "And I had one of those and I sent him a picture."

Elcock declined to buy it. He did, though, buy an old phone off of Bouhdida for $60.

Most of the pair's conversations were recorded on audio.

But one pivotal interaction was not. And it was during this sale that the subject of marijuana was raised.

This is the lynchpin of the story, the point around which Bouhdida's defense turned. In Bouhdida's telling, Elcock mentioned marijuana, asking Bouhdida — who held a valid medical marijuana card at the time for anxiety and back pain — to buy him some weed at his local dispensary. Elcock, for his part, has said he didn't remember how the subject arose.

"I just don't know exactly what it was that happened in our initial conversation with the defendant," the officer said at trial. Though when pressed, he said that it "could have" been him that brought up marijuana. After all, Elcock was a longtime undercover narcotics detective. He specialized in buying drugs on the street, not guns or stolen phones.

After that conversation, Bouhdida texted Elcock, telling him he had two strains of marijuana that he could sell to him: L.A. Confidential and Green Kush.

"U aint the police is u? Lol." — Trent Bouhdida in a text to undercover Tempe Police Sergeant Ronald Elcock.

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That text exchange was entered as evidence in court. In it, Elcock texts that he wants a quarter ounce.

"If it's fire," Elcock tells Bouhdida in a text, "tho dudes from the shop on the card will pick up too. Could be a come up u no."

"Fasho," Bouhdida replies. "I shud have it fam."

After this, Bouhdida again brings up something else he'd like to sell to the shop and Elcock turns the conversation back to marijuana. "Ok. Ok. Just hit me," Bouhdida replied.

"What's poppin T," Elcock writes the next day. "Ay lookin to come thru in like 30 min. 7-Eleven."

"Yeah thats fine."

"Hit u when i pull up. Anything else on deck?"

"Nah fam."

Then, for Bouhdida, some doubt creeps in.

"U got a med card?" Bouhdida asks the cop.

"Yeah shit might be expired tho. Ill look. Imbhere now tho."

"U aint the police is u? Lol."

"Hell naw," Elcock writes back, after a moment. "Dam fam i thought we was pass that. I feel u tho."

"Lol my bad bruh i just gotta make sure i got a number," Bouhdida writes, referring again to Elcock's medical marijuana card.

Elcock gave him one, and with that, the first deal was done.

There would be three more deals over the next two months. Elcock initiated the second, Bouhdida the last two, when he texted the cop with offers. Each time, Bouhdida sold Elcock a quarter ounce of pot.

"I really didn't see nothing wrong with what I was doing," Bouhdida says now. "I've been in the situation where my card was expired and I wanted to get my medication."

The fact that he possessed the marijuana legally was kept from the jury.

"The fact that he had a medical marijuana card has no bearing on whether or not he is allowed to sell marijuana under the law," the prosecutor on the case, Vanessa Cuevas, convinced a Maricopa County Superior Court judge in a pretrial hearing.

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Tempe police sergeant Ronald Elcock, who used the alias of "Kev" on the street.
Chris Carlson / AP / Shutterstock

The Hustler

"Hustle." That was how Cuevas began her opening statement in Bouhdida's trial, on November 20, 2017 — with that single word, letting it reverberate with the jury. At the time, Cuevas was a deputy county attorney. She had worked on serious cases, obtaining, in one instance, a 24-year prison sentence for one Phoenix pornographer who was convicted of running a brothel.

Now, Bouhdida's case was in her hands.

"A hustle," Cuevas continued, "can mean many different things to people. Sometimes we use the word when we're watching a football game, and there's 40 seconds left, and we want our team to hustle to the end zone to make a play.

"This case, though, is about a different type of hustle. The defendant, Trent Bouhdida, his hustle was selling drugs."

It was almost Thanksgiving, 2017. Bouhdida's son was nearly two years old. He was born just a month before his father was arrested on four counts of selling marijuana. Bouhdida had spent the previous year and a half fighting the case, being "ping-ponged," as he put it, between different attorneys: a pro-bono lawyer, a private law firm, a public defender.

By the time of the trial, Bouhdida's attorney was court-appointed. It was a man named Rodrick Carter, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Phoenix. Carter, at the time, was perhaps most well-known as co-counsel for Mark Goudeau, the convicted Baseline Killer. Less than two years after he represented Bouhdida, Carter's license was suspended by the state bar for misconduct involving client trust accounts, and it remains suspended. He did not reply to interview requests from New Times for this story.

That November, Carter and his new client had a fraying relationship. Bouhdida had grown distrustful of the attorneys who worked on his case. Plea negotiations had stalled when Bouhdida decided he couldn't gamble on six and a half to 10 years in prison, the amount of time he was offered for a guilty plea. He attempted to represent himself for a time, which went poorly. A judge ultimately barred him from doing so.

"I had so much going through my mind at that time," Bouhdida said. His grandmother had just died. His relationship with his girlfriend was strained by the court case. "It was already wild that I was facing that much time for this type of charge," he said. "It made it that much more difficult."

At trial, Bouhdida faced a Catch-22. The only real defense left to him was entrapment. The defense argued that it had been Elcock, not Bouhdida, who had conceived of the crime and induced him to commit it. But such a defense would rest on Bouhdida's testimony, and Bouhdida was wary of testifying, because if he did, his prior armed robbery charge would be revealed to the jury.

He chose not to take the stand.

The judge did not even instruct the jury on entrapment.

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Regardless, entrapment defenses are notoriously difficult to prove, particularly in Arizona. "It almost never happens," said Katie Gipson-McLean, a longtime public defender in Maricopa County. "That's just, like, no-man's land."

As the trial progressed, Cuevas built a portrait of Bouhdida out of the texts, the audio recordings, and testimony from Elcock, who took the stand for multiple days. Discussions of amounts and strains of cannabis became, in Cuevas' telling, "lingo that only someone in this hustle, this game, this drug deal would know." The 7-Eleven parking lot — across the street from Bouhdida's apartment — became "an area known to [law enforcement] as an area where you could buy drugs."

"Like I was El Chapo or something," Bouhdida recalled.

Carter attempted to push back. He pressed Elcock on how the subject of marijuana had come up. He played clips to the jury of Bouhdida asking Elcock about his business, about job opportunities at the pawn shop. "The idea for committing this offense started with law enforcement," Carter said, at the trial's opening and close.

But without Bouhdida's testimony, the defense fell apart. There was no one else to vouch for his side of the story, to prove, as an entrapment defense requires, that he would not have sold the pot were it not for that chance encounter with Elcock back in 2015. Ultimately, the judge did not even instruct the jury on entrapment.

The trial lasted a little over a week. The verdict came down on the Monday after Thanksgiving. An inevitable parade of 12 jurors read off a guilty verdict on each count. It was, Bouhdida said, like "watching my fate through a glass."

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The lab report on the small amounts of “plant material” that Bouhdida sold Elcock.
Maricopa County Superior Court trial exhibit

The Punishment

The 16 years and three months that Bouhdida received was not, in fact, the worst sentence allowed by Arizona law. As a court commissioner explained to him at one April 2016 hearing, technically, Bouhdida could have received a 100-year sentence for the crime, had a judge decided to give him 20 years for each sale and stacked them. "I don't think that's likely," the commissioner hastened to say.

Instead, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Nothwehr gave Bouhdida 11 years and three months for the sales, which ran concurrently, plus an additional five years because he was on probation at the time. It was, more or less, what the judge was directed to do by Arizona's sentencing laws, given that Bouhdida — because he had three serious felonies on his record from the 2009 case — was in the highest category of "re-offenders."

"People are just in disbelief when they get to these points in the system, and the judge's hands are tied," Gipson-McLean said of such sentences. "This is the box they operate in."

Still, for marijuana — even for marijuana — it was a harsh punishment. In 2016, the same year Bouhdida was arrested, a woman who was discovered with 374 pounds of marijuana received a two-year prison sentence. A year earlier, two men who arranged to buy 1,000 pounds of marijuana from an undercover cop each received three and a half years.

For Gipson-Mclean, Bouhdida's case is a relic of an older era in Maricopa County. Under former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is now a state supreme court justice, prosecutors offered harsh plea deals and dealt with thousands of marijuana cases a year.

In 2016, the year that Bouhdida was arrested, one in six felony cases filed by Maricopa County prosecutors involved marijuana charges. By 2021, after the passage of Proposition 207, that number of pot charges filed had dropped from a few thousand to just a few dozen.

Randal McDonald, an attorney at Arizona State University's post-conviction clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, has been working for the past year on relief for these old marijuana cases. "For the most part," McDonald said, "even in the 1990s, you were not going to get 15 to 20 years for selling marijuana." The "outrageous" sentences, he said, do still exist.

"I am aware of cases in which the underlying conduct was a person trying to sell marijuana to an undercover cop, and those have been expunged." — Attorney Randal McDonald.

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When cannabis was legalized in Arizona, Proposition 207 allowed for expungement, in which people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes could get their records wiped clean. Per the statute, such crimes include possession and transport, if they involved less than 2.5 ounces of pot. Cases of sales of small amounts of marijuana were not discussed in the law. Although it is legal now to transfer up to an ounce of cannabis without monetary gain, unlicensed sales are still prohibited.

McDonald's focus has been on helping people reduce prison sentences that were extended due to a prior marijuana charge. He's following the court battles playing out around Proposition 207, which could ultimately decide if people charged with crimes like "possession for sale" or "transport or sale," should, too, be eligible for expungement.

Speaking generally about cases involving low-level sales, McDonald said, "I would say that it's not clearly outside of 207. I think that it falls in a gray area." He added, "I will say, I am aware of cases in which the underlying conduct was a person trying to sell marijuana to an undercover cop — and those have been expunged." But it could depend, he said, on how closely prosecutors were looking at those petitions.

Several cases are winding their way through appeals courts that will determine the future of expungements in Arizona.

For Bouhdida, it could determine whether he spends the next 10 years of his life locked up.

Summer in prison is bleak. At the state prison in Tucson, the swamp coolers have been faulty lately, and for a time in June, the heat was unbearable. Bouhdida spent some days trying to get it fixed. "Part of me wants to point out every dysfunction and inhumanity that this place has. And I used to," he wrote to New Times. "But I've learned to pick my battles."

Lately, in fact, Bouhdida has been feeling optimistic. In June, he celebrated his 29th birthday. Some of his friends in prison made him enchiladas to celebrate.

He works, now, as a GED tutor, teaching classes to men in prison who are studying for the degree. Some of these students passed the test recently, and despite his nerves around public speaking, Bouhdida gave a short speech at the celebration.

"I encouraged them to continue seeking knowledge," he said, "and reminded them that their past does not have to define who they are and who they are working to become."

When Bouhdida gets out of prison, he said, he wants to go to the ocean. He has never seen it. He wants to reunite with his family and his son, who is now nearing seven years old. "It affects everybody," Stewart, Bouhdida's aunt, said of the impact of the case on their family. Bouhdida's older brother was still "very hurt," she said. Now, Bouhdida's young son, like Bouhdida himself, is growing up without his father.

"The extra stress, financial drain, and confusion tore my family apart," Bouhdida said. "He is the only victim in this case."

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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk