The civil citation option could keep people caught with small amounts of pot out of the criminal justice system.
Flagler County residents nabbed for certain minor first-time offenses may be able to avoid jail time if a proposal under consideration by local officials is taken up by the county and local cities.
The proposal is to reduce punishments for first-time possession of marijuana under 20 grams, possession of cannabis drug paraphernalia, possession of alcohol between the ages of 18 and 21 and, potentially, disorderly conduct to civil citations for first-time offenders.
That would mean that, for instance, a cop who stopped a car, smelled marijuana and found a joint in the driver’s bag could decide to issue the driver a fine similar to a traffic citation, rather than charging the driver with a crime.
The driver, applying to jobs years down the road, could then check “no” on a box on a job application asking them if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.
“The idea, as I understand it, is to take that individual who makes a mistake first time out of the box; we want to allow that person to preserve the essence of their life,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said at a Public Safety Coordinating Council Subcommittee meeting June 21. “We still have officer discretion. ... I think that law enforcement — they can tell an innocent kid who’s trying it for the first time from somebody who’s hooked on the stuff.”
The fines wouldn’t be huge — maybe $250, council members proposed. If unpaid, the fine would turn into a civil judgement.
But the proposal would be tough to enact if all of the local cities don’t take it up, and Bunnell’s police chief, Thomas Foster, does not support it.
“I’m not in favor of decriminalizing it,” he said. “Bottom line is, there’s too many contradictory cities which we will not be able to track. ... If the state comes down and has a unified policy just like our juvenile citations, then I would be in favor of it, but right now there’s too much confusion and different jurisdictions are doing different things.”
Sheriff Jim Manfre, who has spoken in favor of a civil citation program, said that calling the measure “decriminalization” isn’t accurate.
“This is not decriminalizing marijuana. That would have to come from the state,” he said. “This is a civil citation program.”
The number of people affected by the program wouldn’t be great. Of about 83 marijuana arrests last year, Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis said at the meeting, only 22 would have met criteria for the proposed citation program.
A small group of residents attended the meeting wearing blue shirts in support of the proposed change, and a few addressed the subcommittee during public comment.
“These are people who are making mistakes,” said Sims Jones, a local pastor and NAACP chapter vice president who is running for Palm Coast City Council. “Those are the ones that this is going help. The people who made mistakes.”
Anita Moeder, also a candidate for Palm Coast City Council, said, “We all screw up once in a while, and I think that it’s a wonderful initiative, and I hope that everyone will back it.”
County staff will draft an ordinance for the program. Elected boards for the county and individual cities will then have to decide whether to enact it.