Pubdate: Fri, 17 Jun 2005
Source: San Mateo County Times, The (CA)
Copyright: 2005 ANG Newspapers
Author: Jason Dearen, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


Law Enforcement and Government Officials Support a State Bill That Would 
Reduce Misdemeanors to Infractions

San Mateo County's top law enforcement and government officials are
backing a new state bill that would make the penalty for possessing
less than an ounce of marijuana the legal equivalent of a traffic ticket.

And on the surface, the little-known measure, Senate Bill 797, seems
to be a mostly positive development for marijuana advocates in the
face of recent setbacks in the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress. The
bill would reduce possession of less than an ounce to an infraction
but would raise the maximum fine from $100 to $250.

Under current California law, people caught with less than an ounce of
pot are charged with a misdemeanor, and if they choose to fight it,
they can take their case in front of a jury, even though the maximum
possible penalty is only a $100 fine.

Judges and others in law enforcement say the courts have been clogged
with these cases for years, costing taxpayers tens of millions of
unnecessary dollars in court-appointed attorneys and other
trial-related costs.

"It makes no sense for the law tocharacterize such offense a
misdemeanor, requiring judges to appoint attorneys and impanel and use
the time of ordinary citizens as jurors and then, upon conviction,
impose a mere $100 sanction," said San Mateo County Superior Court
Judge Quentin Kopp, who has been working behind the scenes for years
to make this change to the law.

But the bill's detractors complain that SB 797, sponsored by Senate
Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, does not require that
all marijuana-possession cases be reduced to an infraction. The
proposed law still allows prosecutors the option of charging the crime
as a misdemeanor.

That, coupled with the raising of the maximum fine from $100 to $250,
has some of the state's marijuana legal reform activists rankled.

"Cal NORML supports making marijuana an infraction, since that would
protect defendants from a criminal record, even though it also
deprives them of the right to a criminal trial," wrote the local
chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws
(NORML) on its Web site. "Cal NORML is opposing SB 797 in its present
form, because it is too heavily weighted toward penalty increases for

San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox ardently disagrees with
NORML's stance and said the misdemeanor option will never be used
because prosecutors have no incentive to bring these cases to trial.

"We need to call the offense what it is, an infraction. There is no
way that prosecutors are going to be charging offenders with a
misdemeanor when there is no possibility of jail time. Why should
(taxpayers) have to pay for court-appointed lawyers when its no
different than a traffic ticket?" Fox said.

Joining Kopp and Fox in support of SB 797 are San Mateo County's
supervisors, who unanimously endorsed the proposed

Jason Dearen can be reached at (650) 306-2425 or by e-mail  --
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Dale Gieringer (415) 563-5858  //  Market St. #278, San Francisco CA 94114 
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