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Should officers have a choice? Easing of marijuana laws stalled in Florida over officer discretion issue


Oct. 21–Sheriff Ric Bradshaw could turn into the buzz kill for Palm Beach County’s proposed easing of marijuana laws.

County commissioners on Tuesday delayed plans to give law enforcement officers the option of issuing $100 civil citations — like traffic tickets — instead of arresting adults for having small amounts of marijuana.

The delay comes after the Sheriff’s Office raised concerns about the proposal. Those concerns have also triggered questions about whether Bradshaw would actually allow his deputies to choose to issue the tickets as an alternative to arrests, if the measure gets approved.

The idea behind the county’s proposal is to reduce the number of people jailed and then saddled with criminal records for possessing a drug that has increasingly become more acceptable across the country.

“It costs us a lot of money. It ruins lives for something that [perhaps] we should reconsider,” County Mayor Shelley Vana said.

Commissioners on Oct. 6 preliminarily approved plans to allow civil citations instead of arrests for getting caught with 20 grams or less of marijuana.

But instead of giving final approval Tuesday, commissioners opted to delay the proposal until Dec. 15 and work on changes that could make the measure easier to implement.

While the Sheriff’s Office has voiced objections behind the scenes about the county’s proposal, neither Bradshaw nor his representatives spoke at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

When asked Tuesday whether Bradshaw would allow deputies to issue civil citations, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said Bradshaw has “no additional information to add.”

“It’s up to the sheriff to enforce it,” County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger said about the proposal. “We have no say in how he does that.”

Palm Beach County had about 7,500 cases of marijuana possession of 20 grams or less from 2010 to 2014. About 90 percent of the time that resulted in an arrest, according to the county.

Currently, first-time or low-level offenders often receive probation or are allowed to enter a diversion programs such as drug treatment as an alternative to spending more time in jail.

But a criminal record, even for low-level drug possession, can make it harder for people to get jobs, housing and help paying for college. Also, missing a court date or failing to pay a fine can lead to escalating punishments and jail time, which critics say is a bigger risk for low-income offenders.

Low-level marijuana possession should be treated as a public health issue, not an arrest that can bring the “severe life consequences of a criminal record,” according to Mark Schneider, president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the county’s proposal, law enforcement officers would have the discretion of issuing a $100 civil citation instead of arresting someone, 18 years or older, caught with up to 20 grams — about 3/4 of an ounce — of marijuana.

County officials Tuesday agreed to drop plans for the fines to escalate if not paid on time. Commissioners also called for allowing community service instead of paying the $100.

The civil citations would not be allowed if marijuana was found in conjunction with more serious offenses.

And before the final vote on Dec. 15, the county plans to include a maximum number of civil citations that would be allowed per person before requiring arrest.

Also, as currently proposed, the use of civil citations instead of arrests would apply to areas outside city limits, with cities having the option to follow the county’s measure. Before the Dec. 15 vote, county officials plan to explore changing that to a countywide measure that would give the cities the chance to opt out.

County Commissioner Hal Valeche cast the only vote against what he called the “liberalizing of marijuana laws.”

Valeche said that one of the problems with the measure is that giving law enforcement officers the option of issuing the civil citations would open up the Sheriff’s Office to potential criticism over who ends up getting to pay a fine and who goes to jail.

“That puts a lot of additional pressure on [law enforcement officers],” Valeche said.

Palm Beach County isn’t alone is considering changes to marijuana laws.

The city of West Palm Beach and Miami-Dade County have already approved laws creating alternatives to jail for marijuana possession.

abreid@sunsentinel.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews


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