Sarasota commissioner wants to decriminalize marijuana
Individuals caught with small amounts of the drug could avoid a rap sheet under a proposal.
SARASOTA — Individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana could avoid a rap sheet under a new proposal from one Sarasota city commissioner.
Commissioner Hagen Brody wants to amend the city code to allow police the option to issue noncriminal civil citations rather than a criminal misdemeanor charge for possession of fewer than 20 grams of cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia. Brody says the move — which mirrors those made in other jurisdictions, including Tampa, Port Richey, Orlando, and Broward County — could help reduce jail overcrowding and the caseload in the criminal justice system while allowing police to focus on violent crime and the opioid crisis. The issue is set to be discussed at the City Commission’s March 18 meeting.
“Since 2016, the Sarasota Police department has initiated 789 criminal charges for possession of cannabis,” Brody wrote in a Feb. 27 memo to the city manager and city attorney. “While a portion of those were secondary charges, many were also stand-alone criminal notices to appear. A portion of which undoubtedly ended up in the county jail at taxpayers’ expense for missing a court date.”
Brody adds the move also makes sense as marijuana is legalized in an increasing number of other states.
“The public opinion and public policy is changing dramatically and quickly in this area and the question I ask myself is, ‘Are we going to continue to saddle people with criminal records for something that is in such flux?’” Brody added.
Twelfth Circuit Public Defender Larry Eger is supportive of the move, he said.
“We have had multiple meetings with the (Sarasota) County Commission as two how to reduce the jail population — not that there’s a single solution — but I think this addresses the idea that we have over-criminalized conduct or behavior resulting in jail overcrowding,” Eger added, also saying the move would reduce the caseload on his office.
Overcrowding at the Sarasota County jail has continued to intensify leading to cramped cells and scuffles among agitated inmates. On Feb. 26, the jail population was about 883 — 16 more inmates than the jail’s operational capacity. Although the facility can physically hold 1,020 inmates, its operational capacity is 867 because of various separation needs, such as by gender or by felony or misdemeanor charges. Officials say the inmate population has increased each year since 2016. Many of the inmates housed last year at the facility on Ringling Boulevard, built in 1975, are awaiting trial or sentencing. Around 610 inmates last year were awaiting trial or sentencing, 164 were sentenced, 123 violated probation and 67 were state inmates, according to 2018 county statistics. And while arrests are down, the average length of stay has increased each year from 2009 to 2017, from 19.33 days to 26.85 days.
But Eger added the issuance of citations should not be at the discretion of law enforcement officers.
“If law enforcement is given the discretion to give a civil citation, they get to decide who will receive a civil citation and who will be criminally prosecuted,” Eger said. “And I think for due process purposes, the law has to be applied even-handedly and equally to all.”
State law, however, prohibits local municipalities from imposing the rule on the police, Brody said, adding state law encourages law enforcement officers, at their sole discretion, to issue civil citations to certain adults who commit qualifying misdemeanor offenses. It’s Brody’s goal, he said, to get the code changed and then proceed with talks with police about who should be eligible for civil citations.
Once the ordinance is on the books, Brody wants to “work with law enforcement to create criteria and policy that dictates when they’re appropriate and when they are not,” he said of the citations.
Chief Bernedette DiPino and the command staff “is aware of the proposal,” police spokeswoman Genevieve Judge said in an email. “At this time, since this is only in a proposal phase, we’re going to wait to see what is shared on March 18.”
Twelfth Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky could not be reached for comment.