Pubdate: Tue, 27 Jan 2015
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Times, LLC.
Author: Andrea Noble


D.C. police have written more than 250 tickets for marijuana 
possession in the roughly six months since the District relaxed its 
marijuana laws, but the vast majority of citations have simply been 
ignored, an analysis by The Washington Times has found.

 From July 17 through Jan. 7, the Metropolitan Police Department 
issued 251 tickets for marijuana possession, with 47 percent issued 
to people in the department's Seventh District, which lies east of 
the Anacostia River and includes some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

An analysis of the adjudication of five months' worth of marijuana 
tickets shows that violators are ignoring the penalties - with an 
estimated 70 percent failing to pay the $25 fine. Such widespread 
noncompliance was predicted early on by police, noting that the 
decriminalization law doesn't provide any enforcement mechanism.

"When the proposed legislation was discussed in Council, MPD advised 
that there was likely to be a low compliance rate with civil 
violations for which an individual has no property interest or 
privilege to protect - such as real property, a professional license 
or a driver's license," said police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump. 
"There is no follow-up mechanism for nontraffic civil violations, 
such as the marijuana or littering tickets, as individuals are not 
required to provide proof of identity when they receive a ticket."

The District's marijuana decriminalization, which went into effect 
July 17, replaces criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or 
less of marijuana with a civil violation and a $25 fine. Smoking 
marijuana in public remains an arrestable offense.

The city's Office of Administrative Hearings provided details about 
the adjudication of 225 of the 251 tickets - all of those issued 
through Dec. 22.

An analysis of those 225 tickets shows that 88 tickets were still 
considered open by the city (violators have 14 days to respond to 
tickets). However, of the 137 remaining tickets, 96 tickets - or 70 
percent of the closed tickets - have gone unpaid and are considered 
outstanding, with the fine doubling to $50.

Violators have paid the fine in 29 cases, another six tickets were 
dismissed, five were listed as "rejected," and one was challenged and 
overturned, according to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

D.C. Council member David Grosso, a proponent of marijuana 
legalization, would rather see the civil fines done away with 
altogether. But he says the notion that the council has enacted laws 
the city can't enforce is bothersome.

"I think government falls apart if you don't enforce the rules you 
put in place," said Mr. Grosso, at-large independent. "If we're going 
to put these kinds of penalties in place, then I think we need to put 
something in place to enforce them."

The fate of a ballot initiative passed in November that legalizes the 
possession, but not the sale, of marijuana remains uncertain as local 
leaders and federal lawmakers argue over the legality of whether the 
measure can take effect. Congress has since approved a budget bill 
that includes language banning the city from spending money to loosen 
its drug laws. The federal government still outlaws the use, 
possession, production and sale of marijuana.

Ticket or arrest?

In the meantime, if decriminalization remains the new norm for law 
enforcement, ticketing and arrest data show that the effects of the 
new set of marijuana laws are not being felt evenly across the District.

Marijuana-related arrests are way down from previous years, with MPD 
reporting 233 such arrests from July 17 through Jan. 7, compared to a 
total of 5,759 marijuana arrests in 2011. But whether marijuana users 
face arrest for public use or a ticket for possession varies 
depending on where in town they are stopped.

The most civil fines for marijuana possession - 118 tickets - were 
written in MPD's Seventh District.

For police to issue a ticket for marijuana possession, officers first 
must observe someone with the drug. It's a scenario that most often 
plays out when officers already have stopped a person for another 
reason, according to police.

"Roughly half of the tickets are being issued when officers find the 
marijuana in a search of an individual arrested for a different 
offense," said Ms. Crump, the police spokeswoman.

Arrests for marijuana consumption in public, on the other hand, tend 
to occur after police receive a complaint, she said.

Arrests for smoking marijuana happen most frequently in MPD's Third 
District - which includes nighttime hot spots such as the U Street 
corridor. From July 17 through Jan. 7, police made 58 out of a total 
of 99 arrests for marijuana consumption in the Third District.

"These arrests are based on officer observation, which may be 
preceded by a call for service for the issue," Ms. Crump said.

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said that even before 
decriminalization took effect, police did not actively pursue many 
marijuana possession charges.

"Officers for the last 20 years have avoided possession of marijuana 
arrests because they've not been prosecuted for many, many years," 
Chief Lanier said Tuesday on NewsChannel 8's "NewsTalk with Bruce 
Depuyt." "It was a waste of time for officers to make possession of 
marijuana arrests."

A police 'tool'

For marijuana users, ticketing under decriminalization has been a 
welcome alternative.

Police seem to be using the civil citations as a way to issue a 
warning to those they find smoking in public, said Adam Eidinger, 
head of the pro-marijuana legalization group the D.C. Cannabis Campaign.

"I've talked to three different people who were stopped for smoking 
in public, and all three said they were given tickets," Mr. Eidinger 
said. "I feel like [police] are using a lot of discretion in public use."

Who is being stopped for marijuana violations, and where they are 
being stopped, are questions of great interest to local activists 
seeking to ensure that the new laws are not being enforced in a biased manner.

The D.C. Council approved decriminalization as a way to end arrests 
that had been affecting black residents disproportionately.

Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director for the ACLU of the 
Nation's Capital, said police tactics such as stop-and-frisk and 
pretextual traffic stops are used more widely in some police 
districts as a means to identify potential criminal activity.

"We suspect that these aggressive tactics produce the higher rates of 
marijuana arrests in some areas of the District," Ms. Sadanandan 
said. "If you stop enough people, a certain percentage in any 
neighborhood is going to possess marijuana, and I think that is what 
the high numbers of citations in certain police districts represent."

Data provided by the Office of Administrative Hearings does not list 
the age or race of those who received civil citations.

A report by the Washington Lawyers' Committee found that in 2011, 
about 56 percent of all the city's drug arrests occurred in three 
wards - with 18 percent being made in Ward 8, which overlaps the 
MPD's Seventh District.

"I think that the heavy concentration of citations in Ward 8 and 
areas downtown are an indicator of high levels of police contact and 
subsequent 'consent' searches in which people reveal their possession 
of small amounts of marijuana," Ms. Sadanandan said. "These incidents 
of marijuana possession are likely the tip of the iceberg in terms of 
police contact and searches in the District's black communities."

Despite assurances by Chief Lanier that marijuana enforcement is not 
a police priority, Mr. Grosso expressed concern that officers will 
continue to use decriminalization as a means to stop and detain people.

"The thing I was always worried about with [decriminalization] is 
that it's still a tool in the tool belt of police to get in 
somebody's business on the street," he said. "I think the police will 
use every tool that they have."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom