Miami-Dade commissioners voted Tuesday to let police treat marijuana possession the same way they do littering and loitering — by issuing a civil citation with a $100 fine that keeps the offense out of the criminal system.
“We have better things to do with our police resources,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, sponsor of the ordinance. “For goodness’ sakes, we don't have to destroy the lives of so many.”
The change in county code passed 10-3, marking a milestone in how Florida's largest local government treats marijuana offenses. The new ordinance gives police officers the option of either charging pot possession as a criminal misdemeanor or as a civil offense — which brings a fine but no criminal record — for possession of 20 grams or less, enough for about three dozen joints.
Backers pointed to the damage that a marijuana arrest may cause, jeopardizing eligibility for certain jobs, military service, student loans and affordable-housing programs. Advocates also said marijuana arrests are clogging the court system and keeping police too busy.
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“It would be stunning to you the amount of taxpayer dollars that is utilized every time someone is charged with a simple offense of possession of marijuana,” said Judge Samuel Slom, who oversees the court branch that handles misdemeanor cases. “It takes the officer off their beat. Instead of protecting the community, now they're transporting someone from as far away as south Kendall all the way to the Dade County jail.”
Slom and other backers of the ordinance emphasized that the change does not de-criminalize marijuana possession, since officers would still have the option of filing criminal charges. State and county law provides jail time and fines for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana, and that would not change. Police director J.D. Patterson also said that smoking marijuana in public would remain a crime, and that the new ordinance would apply only to possession.
But the ordinance gives police throughout Miami-Dade the non-criminal option for possession, which would bring the offender a civil citation and the required fine. The ordinance takes effect in 10 days, and applies to all Miami-Dade cities as well. Mayor Carlos Gimenez endorsed the legislation Tuesday, calling it “good, common sense.” The police department that answers to Gimenez helped draft Heyman's proposed ordinance.
Voting against the local law were commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto.
“All we're doing here is making parents’ lives harder,” Bovo said. “I could see a teenager telling a parent: ‘It's just a fine, it's not a big deal.’”
Senior county officials have not detailed how police would implement the new law, or when it would be appropriate to still arrest someone for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
Patterson told commissioners at a hearing two weeks ago that he would encourage officers to use the criminal option when the marijuana is clearly meant to be sold or if someone was caught with pot in a car accident. On Tuesday, Patterson said department rules will offer more guidance on how the rules should be enforced, including when repeat offenders should be charged criminally.
Miami-Dade's new ordinance is part of a national movement away from criminal prosecution of minor marijuana possession. In South Florida, Broward County and Miami Beach are considering similar changes.
Approval of the ordinance follows a report this week by CBS 4 showing the racial divide in marijuana arrests that is helping drive the weakening of marijuana laws nationwide. CBS4 reviewed every misdemeanor marijuana arrest made in Miami-Dade County between 2010 and 2014. Among the findings:
▪ The misdemeanor pot arrests accounted for 10 percent of all cases filed in the criminal court system.
▪ County police account for 61 percent of those misdemeanor pot arrests.
▪ While about 20 percent of Miami-Dade's population is black, about 55 percent of the pot cases involved black defendants.
▪ Of the 44,860 marijuana cases closed in Miami-Dade between 2010 and 2014, only 2 percent resulted in a conviction.
The change in Miami-Dade’s marijuana law was included in a larger rewrite of how to treat other minor offenses. With the new ordinance, police also would have the option of issuing $100 civil citations for loitering, littering and even possession of a plastic crate that’s registered as a dairy company’s property. The new ordinance also creates a civil citation for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Commissioners also passed an implementing order that would allow people cited for a marijuana civil infraction to perform two days of community service to work off the $100 fine.
Also on Tuesday:
Gimenez blamed widespread under-billing in the county's special taxing districts on the assessment dollars being pooled, allowing surpluses from one district to cover deficits for others where residents weren’t charged enough for amenities like security. He cited a Morningside resident who was under-charged in past years. “He got those services,” Gimenez said. “Some other special taxing district money was used to cover those costs.”
“I am deeply sorry for what happened,” Gimenez told commissioners. “This is a problem we uncovered recently.”
The foul-up comes as Miami-Dade is raising fees on more than 100,000 properties, with about half of the money going to close deficits in dozens of districts that weren't charging enough, according to county figures.
Commissioners rejected Gimenez's request to approve 2016 fees for about 830 districts not facing increases, saying they wanted more clarity on what went wrong. The proposed increases were put on the Sept. 1 agenda, when commissioners were already scheduled to consider the Gimenez administration’s proposed rate increases. “In the seven months I have served,” said the commission’s newest member, Daniella Levine Cava, “this is my lowest moment.”
▪ Approved spending $13.9 million in transit sales tax on a new Tri-Rail station in downtown Miami. The allocation is the county's share of a $69 million public-funding package for the station, which will connect Tri-Rail's Hialeah station with a stop in All Aboard Florida's privately-operated train depot under construction in downtown Miami.
Metorail already connects the two locations, but the hope is the new Tri-Rail station will allow that commuter line to expand on a more eastern route near Miami-Dade's coastal communities.