Florida Keys

Civil fines for marijuana possession weighed by Keys city

Several communities in South Florida have laws treating pot possession of up to 20 grams as a civil matter.
Several communities in South Florida have laws treating pot possession of up to 20 grams as a civil matter.

Marathon may be joining Islamorada and Key West in giving law enforcement the option to issue a civil citation rather than make a misdemeanor arrest for someone caught with up to 20 grams of marijuana.

Councilman John Bartus brought the idea to the Marathon City Council last week.

Bartus reasoned that allowing Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputies to issue a citation for small amounts of marijuana in Marathon will give them time to address more serious crimes. He also said it would save taxpayer money by not putting people through the county legal system.

"The option to let sheriff's deputies to issue civil citations at their discretion is going to save tax dollars that can be better used elsewhere," Bartus said. "It could possibly prevent the potential ruination of someone's life."

Last summer, Miami-Dade adopted a $100 fine for pot possession.

“We have better things to do with our police resources,” Commissioner Sally Heyman, sponsor of the ordinance, said at the time. “For goodness’ sakes, we don't have to destroy the lives of so many.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the proposed change in the Keys.

"My kids are taught drugs are wrong, drugs are bad and we don't do drugs," Mayor Mark Senmartin said. "So until it's decriminalized, my stance is going to be it is criminal. If you want to do it, do it but suffer the consequence."

Still, City Attorney David Migut said he'll try to have a draft ordinance written up for the April 12 council meeting, scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Marathon Government Center.

The Key West City Commission passed a law in September that gives police the discretion to issue a citation, resulting in a $100 fine, for possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana.

City spokeswoman Alyson Crean said "so far, only a handful" have been issued. "It took some time to get them printed and establish the mechanisms so that reporting, etc., jibes with state statutes."

Islamorada Councilman Mike Forester said the Village Council passed a law identical to Key West's last month.

At the Marathon council meeting, Sheriff's Office Capt. Gene Thompson said having the flexibility of issuing citations will give deputies more time to address crimes of higher priority.

"If it's a first offender, 18 years old and going off to college, it's probably best we give them a citation," Thompson said. "We don't want to ruin their lives, they don't want to ruin their lives. Why get started that way?"

Thompson said now, people who are caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana in unincorporated Monroe County or Marathon are either arrested or issued a notice to appear in court.

With the notice to appear, deputies arrest the person, seize the marijuana and write a report. The person is then given a misdemeanor citation let go.

The County Commission is considering an ordinance like those in Islamorada and Key West for unincorporated Monroe. County Attorney Bob Shillinger said he's waiting on information from Monroe County Clerk Amy Heavilin before he brings it to a commission meeting.