The creators of Miami-Dade's new marijuana law, which allows police to fine pot smokers $100 instead of arresting them, envision a day when blacks, whites and Hispanics who choose to indulge are all fined or arrested in equal proportions.
That doesn’t happen now. And civil rights advocates say it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, either — unless there’s a big change in the culture at the county police department.
The fear: Young black men will continue to be arrested in disproportionate numbers because of lengthier past criminal histories. The new law, which took effect in late June, gives police the discretion to fine anyone caught with 20 grams of pot who isn’t smoking in public.
“I think the danger is — and I hope it doesn’t pan out — that there will be a disproportionate number of white kids who receive citations, and that blacks will continue to get arrested because of their records,” said civil rights attorney John de Leon, past president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I’m concerned with the level of racism in this community. There needs to be a cultural shift for this policy to be administered fairly.”
Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta — echoing earlier statements from Police Director J.D. Patterson, who was out of town this week—said the goal of the new law has nothing to do with limiting the numbers of blacks arrested for what many consider such a minor offense.
It’s mainly to give a person with no, or a limited criminal history, a break if he’s caught with a joint or two.
“You don’t want to permanently damage people with minor records,” said Zabaleta. “It’s more geared toward the person who doesn’t have a criminal past and just made a bad decision. You slap him in the hand, make him pay a $100 fine, and he might learn his lesson.”
The county commission adopted the new law as part of a package of misdemeanor crimes — including littering and trespassing —that give police the discretion of handing out a civil citation instead of arresting a person for possessing 20 grams of marijuana or less. If a person is caught smoking or driving with pot, an arrest is still likely. Miami Beach passed a similar ordinance last month but has yet to set policies for how police should handle the citations.
To smooth the transition for county police, Patterson issued a new policy stance last week that encourages officers to issue citations if the suspect has no criminal history, hasn’t committed a crime in the past three years, or if he or she has a criminal past, but one that is not related to the current violation.
Officers are also being urged to provide information pamphlets and to impound drug paraphernalia. They were also told there is no need to write up time-consuming incident reports for civil citations. Not recording avoids a potentially embarrassing public record for a violator caught with a small amount of marijuana.
Miami-Dade County commissioners amended the county’s marijuana law after an extensive investigation by Miami Herald news partner CBS4 found blacks were being arrested for the minor offense disproportionately. The investigation showed that blacks made up 55 percent of the county’s misdemeanor marijuana arrests, despite accounting for only 20 percent of the population. The investigation also found that out of the 44,860 cases that were closed between 2010 and 2014, only 2 percent resulted in conviction.
The 10-3 vote came at the urging of Commissioner Sally Heyman, who argued police resources should be directed at more important issues and that arrests for the minor offense come at an enormous cost to taxpayers. She told fellow commissioners that, “we don’t want to destroy the lives of so many.”
This week, Heyman, fighting a cold, said she wasn’t sure if the new law will help balance the arrests. She said it’s going to take some time before there’s enough data available to study its impact.
Of this, however, she was certain: “These people don’t belong locked up with an arrest record.”