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Palm Coast Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016 2 years ago

Is jail too high a price? For minor marijuana possession, Sheriff Manfre suggests civil citations instead of arrests

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Three other Florida counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach — now issue $100 citations for people caught with under 20 grams of pot.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

It happens almost every week, sometimes more than once: A deputy pulls over a car for a traffic infraction, and smells pot. A joint or a baggy of weed is found in the car.

The driver is then charged with marijuana possession, possibly jailed, and risks a criminal record that could make it hard for them to get a job or rent a home.

Meanwhile, deputies are spending their time doing paperwork on minor pot busts while the suspect takes up jail space and court time and government money that could be used for more serious offenses.

Several Florida counties — Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach — have decided that’s a bad deal. Within the past year, all three have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for first-time drug offenders, replacing arrests for possession of under 20 grams with $100 civil citations. Volusia County is also thinking of replacing jail time with fines.

Flagler County Sheriff James L. Manfre has suggested the Flagler County Commission consider following their lead.

“It’s really just a suggestion that the County Commission inquire as to whether a similar type of ordinance as has been considered in Volusia County and has already been enacted in Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County is something that could be effective here in this community,” he said. “I think certainly we need to have the discussion, because I think this is certainly the wave of the future.”

Arrests for pot possession, Manfre pointed out, have a lifelong effect by leaving people with criminal records.

“I think we need to consider whether the penalty is fitting the crime that is committed,” he said. The change would only apply to first-time drug offenders, and would apply only to possession of under 20 grams.

Flagler County’s Public Safety Coordinating Commission discussed the possibility of decriminalization at a meeting in January, he said, but has not taken any formal action.

County Attorney Al Hadeed said the county does have the power to decriminalize by passing a county ordinance. Cities within the county would also have to support the initiative.

Decriminalization would entail making the punishment for possession of small amounts of weed comparable to that of a traffic infraction, but it wouldn’t legalize it — something Manfre said he’s not presently in favor of. He would like to see at least five years of data from states that have legalized pot before making a decision on whether or not that’s a good idea, he said.

But letting deputies handle minor marijuana cases without the paperwork involved in an arrest will lighten their workload, Manfre said.

“Just reading the weekly (shift commanders’) reports, rarely a day goes by that we’re not making a traffic stop with some kind of arrest also for minor marijuana possession,” he said. “I think (decriminalization) has the ability to bring significantly less of a workload to our deputies, who are overworked.” The Sheriff’s Office’s call volume has “gone up tremendously over the past three years,” Manfre said, but staffing numbers haven’t.

Manfre said the Sheriff’s Office would want any ordinance the county might create to allow law enforcement officers some discretion on whether to issue a citation or make an arrest, based on factors like how a suspect behaves in their encounter with an officer.

“I think there’s more people in favor of (decriminalization) than ever before,” Manfre said. “What I want to do is encourage the (County) Commission to have this conversation, look at some legislation that has been proposed in other counties, and replicate it as appropriate to this community.”

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