Miami-Dade moves closer to creating $100 fine for pot possession

A proposal to issue $100 citations for marijuana possession in Miami-Dade cleared a legislative committee on Wednesday, moving Florida’s largest county closer to taking pot offenses out of the criminal system.

The legislation — which was approved 5-1 by the County Commission’s Metropolitan Services panel — would still allow police throughout Miami-Dade to arrest someone with 20 grams or less of pot on a misdemeanor charge. But the proposal would rewrite county law to give officers the option of issuing a civil citation instead, an action that would let the offender pay a $100 fine or work off the penalty with two days of community service.

Officers currently have the choice of simply not arresting people caught with a misdemeanor amount of pot, or issuing criminal charges that can result in as much as one year in jail. “Right now, it’s let go completely or arrest,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, the sponsor of the legislation. “This will give a middle alternative.”

Only one commissioner, Javier Souto, voted against the proposal, with Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan, and Juan C. Zapata joining Heyman on the Yes side. A final vote by the full 13-member commission is scheduled for June 30, and then it would go to Mayor Carlos Gimenez for a possible veto.

Heyman’s plan follows a national trend toward decriminalizing marijuana, with 15 states treating marijuana possession as a civil offense akin to littering and loitering. Miami Beach commissioners gave preliminary approval to similar rules on Wednesday, which would leave the city with looser marijuana penalties if the county ordinance should fail.

“I believe this is an effort from our pragmatic progressive city to move forward with allowing our police force to focus more on areas that we know are of greater need to public safety,” said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.

If the county rules pass, Miami Beach could collect the fines generated by pot citations issued by its officers rather than the money going to Miami-Dade, according to a county lawyer. Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates told city commissioners that he expects to issue 400 civil citations a year for marijuana possession. But people openly smoking marijuana in public would still face arrest on the misdemeanor charge, he said.

The decriminalization issue is a sensitive one. Gimenez has not made a decision on the proposal, according to a spokesman, though the police director who ultimately reports to the mayor, J.D. Patterson, supported it during Wednesday’s meeting.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Jordan started the proceedings by showing the audience all three parts of a CBS4 investigation called “Race Matters” by reporter Jim DeFede that showed a county police squad targeting the largely black area of Goulds with dozens of marijuana arrests but almost no convictions.

Commissioners cited the series throughout the discussion, saying it captured the uneven way police throughout the United States tend to prosecute drug offenses.

An American Civil Liberties Union report cited by DeFede found that a black person in Miami-Dade was six times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession. Carlos Martinez, the county’s public defender, noted that county prosecutors had authorized the University of Miami’s police force to offer its students the equivalent of civil fines and community service when caught with pot — an option offered local colleges but not available to young adults elsewhere in Miami-Dade.

J.L. Demps Jr., president of the Greater Goulds Optimist Club, told commissioners that even a misdemeanor arrest for marijuana can condemn young black men to uphill climbs when it comes to finding employment or housing assistance.

“I’ve seen many adults trying to get housing in Miami projects,” he said. “An arrest makes a big difference in terms of what they can do.”

The marijuana rules are part of a larger proposal to rewrite Miami-Dade’s criminal codes and create the option of civil fines for six other minor offenses, including loitering, shopping-cart theft, littering and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Heyman cited figures showing that about 24,000 people a year are booked on those charges in Miami-Dade, about 65 per day.

Patterson did not lay out how Miami-Dade’s 4,000-person police department would sift through which offenders deserved civil citations for pot and which should be arrested.

“I truly believe Miami-Dade County has the finest,” said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson. “But when you start talking about officers having ‘discretion,’ it appears to me that that discretion is arresting how many blacks more so than anybody else? That’s an officer’s discretion.”

Patterson said arrests would be focused on people caught multiple times smoking pot in public, when someone is clearly a pot dealer, or if marijuana seems to be part of a larger incident, like a car accident.

“Discretion is still very, very important to the officer,” Patterson said. As an example, he said someone with a pocketful of joints might be holding less than 20 grams but still look ready to sell the marijuana to someone. “I want to believe an officer will make an arrest in that case”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.