JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An Action News Jax Investigation exposes how effective civil citations are for people caught with small amounts of pot.
Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis filed a bill this week that would allow officers to give out citations that are civil, not criminal, to people in possession of fewer than 20 grams of marijuana.
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The state attorney’s office has opened 830 cases in Duval County since Jan. 1, 2018, in which possession of fewer than 20 grams of marijuana was the person’s primary charge.
“I thought that I was just getting pulled over for a traffic stop,” said Jor-El Pizarro, who supports decriminalization of marijuana.
Pizarro said that traffic stop ended in a criminal charge when police found marijuana that he says helps lessen his anxiety.
“I don’t harm anybody. I don’t damage anybody. I don’t go out on a killing spree or a robbing spree,” said Pizarro.
If Dennis’ bill passes in Jacksonville, people like Pizarro caught with fewer than 20 grams of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia could be given a $100 fine or 10 hours of community service, instead of a criminal record.
Right now, it’s a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
At least nine Florida counties and cities have already passed similar civil citation bills in the past few years, including Palm Beach, Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties, as well as Tampa, Orlando, Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach.
Tampa police spokesperson Eddy Durkin said the agency issued 1,141 civil citations in 2018 and 921 in 2017.
“The option of issuing a civil citation, when it meets criteria, allows our officers to commit more time to proactive patrols and respond to higher priority calls for service,” said Durkin.
In Palm Beach County, deputies haven’t issued a single civil citation for marijuana possession, despite the bill that passed there years ago.
“The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will continue to arrest offenders for marijuana possession, in accordance with Florida state statute guide lines, and work with the state attorney’s office for subsequent prosecution,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office public information officer Therese Barbera.
Citations are an option, not a requirement, so officers can choose not to use them.
In Alachua County, sheriff’s office Public Information Officer Art Forgey said deputies don’t issue the citations because county commissioners passed a bill that failed to set up a system to collect or adjudicate the citations.
Both Jacksonville’s sheriff and mayor disagree with civil citations for marijuana.
Sheriff Mike Williams issued the following statement:
“I do not support the decriminalization of marijuana. The agency has been following the ever-evolving changes in medical-marijuana laws in the State of Florida. We are always looking at ways to be efficient in the enforcement of these laws, and believe that no additional local legislation is necessary.”
Chief of Staff Brian Hughes, on behalf of Mayor Lenny Curry, issued the following statement:
“Legalizing drugs and encouraging law enforcement to ignore state and federal law seems contradictory to ensuring our city is safer.
"Over the course of many years, Florida had a thoughtful dialogue on certain changes to law allowing new medicinal uses. Policy makers continue to grapple with the implications of those changes with a focus on public safety and patient health.
"At this time, we have one bill filed by one City Councilmember. Consistent with how Mayor Curry reacts to City Council legislation, he looks forward to hearing from the community, from criminal justice and law enforcement experts and the remainder of the Council. If such legislation is passed, he will consider what action is best for the people of Jacksonville.”
Dennis issued the following statement on the bill he filed:
“Yesterday I filed a bill to provide our police officers with the ability to issue a citation for small amounts of marijuana instead of an arrest. During my reelection campaign, I spoke to many citizens whose lives were thrown into a downward spiral due to possessing minimal amounts of marijuana. Families were in debt because of legal issues, loss of employment or the inability to secure gainful employment; based on these misdemeanor arrests. Further, having an option to issue a civil citation would essentially support legislation coming out of Tallahassee, and ultimately assist with the overcrowding of our jails and the court system. Our officers’ focus should be on violent crimes, and although illegal, possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana should not be life-altering. Civil citations would be the first step in minimalizing arrests, but still holding the individual accountable.”
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