Pubdate: Fri, 24 Aug 2007
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2007 Star-Telegram Operating, Ltd.
Author: John Moritz
Referenced: the bill
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)
Bookmark: (Crime Policy - United States)


AUSTIN -- If a police officer in Texas catches you with a few ounces 
of marijuana you're going to jail, right? Maybe not.

Beginning Sept. 1, police officers will have the discretion to issue 
citations similar to traffic tickets rather than hauling the offender 
to jail. House Bill 2391, which passed with virtually no opposition 
during the 2007 legislative session and was signed into law without 
fanfare by Gov. Rick Perry, does not change the penalty for pot possession.

But supporters say the discretion may only be used when the person is 
in possession of four ounces of marijuana or less and lives in the 
county where the stop was made, and only when the suspect is not 
considered a threat to public safety. Plus, they say, it will save a 
lot of time and paperwork for beat cops and it will help prevent 
local jails from being clogged with otherwise low-risk lawbreakers.

"From my perspective, it gives police officers another tool in their 
belt when dealing with nonviolent offenders," said Deputy Chief 
Dennis McKnight of the Bexar County Sheriff's Department. "Rather 
than spending three hours taking a guy downtown, booking him into 
jail, taking him before a magistrate and taking his paperwork up to 
the district attorney, I can write him a ticket compelling him to 
show up in court.

"And I can get back to my beat protecting my citizens from rapists 
and burglars," he added. "It's a no-brainer."

But the Fort Worth Police Department and the Tarrant County District 
Attorney's Office see it differently. Assistant District Attorney 
David Montague said his agency is advising local law enforcement 
agencies to continue taking into custody anyone who violates the law 
governing marijuana possession.

"It is our desire that they continue to handle these cases as they've 
been handled in the past," Montague said. "It would be a big hassle 
to implement the new policy, and there would be no guarantee that we 
would have the tools we need to make sure these folks made it back 
for their court appearance."

Lt. Robert Rangel, who heads the narcotics division for the Fort 
Worth Police, said the department will follow the DA's 
recommendation. He said most arrests involving small amounts of 
marijuana are made by patrol officers who find the stash in the 
course of making traffic stops or other routine business.

"Our unit is targeting the trafficking of more dangerous substances," 
Rangel said.

State Rep. Jerry Madden, a Richardson Republican who chairs the House 
Corrections Committee, said he introduced the legislation at the 
behest of law enforcement organizations who expressed concerns about 
local jail overcrowding and about whether police officers' time could 
be better spent rather than taking misdemeanor offenders into custody.

The measure passed 132-0 in the House and 29-1 in the Senate. 
Houston's Dan Patrick, a Republican, cast the sole dissenting vote.

"This is not about decriminalizing marijuana," Madden said. "There's 
nothing in the legislation about that." Under the new law, possessing 
less than two ounces of marijuana remains a Class B misdemeanor 
punishable by 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Possession 
of two ounces to four ounces remains a Class A misdemeanor and is 
punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said the governor has no problem with 
local law enforcement agencies deciding to allow citations to be 
written in marijuana-possession cases as long as the suspects are 
held accountable.

Ana Yanez Correa, director of the Criminal Justice Coalition, said 
the new law makes sense for both law enforcement agencies and for 
those accused of possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"This says to the police officer, you have the experience and 
judgment to decide whether this person needs to be taken to jail 
immediately," she said. "And for the person accused, if he is given a 
citation, he doesn't risk losing his job because he misses work or 
risk losing his home because he lost his job. He still has to go to 
court, and he still faces punishment." 
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