SARASOTA — Criminal justice advocates rejoiced two years ago when Sarasota city leaders unanimously voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Like cities in northeast Florida, Sarasota changed local law so that those caught with 20 grams of cannabis or less would be issued a civil citation, something along the lines of a parking ticket or a code violation, rather than arrested.
But the new rule was left up to the discretion of Sarasota Police Department officers — law enforcement officials who did not implement the directive from City Hall. Instead, they continued as usual, and arrested or issued a notice to appear in court to seven people.
In all, only one person was issued a civil citation last year. That man voluntarily asked to be committed for drug and alcohol treatment.
Most of the cases in which officers issued arrests or notices to appear in court involved one or more unrelated crimes.
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In one case, a Black man, who was passed out in Pioneer Park with another man, was handcuffed after the officer spotted a joint. The officer said he feared for his safety.
“The program was not put out as it was intended,” said Chief Jim Rieser, who was appointed late last month after his predecessor resigned. “With that in mind, we’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward.”
Rieser said the previous administration did not put the new policy out the way it should have been, by making it mandatory that officers issue a civil citation.
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Rieser will now make it mandatory and officers will be required to undergo training. The department will also provide regular reporting to ensure the policy is followed and also report to the citizen-led police advisory board.
The new police chief presented the changes at a recent Sarasota City Commission meeting.
Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody, who pushed for decriminalization last year, said, “I can tell through my conversation with you that you will take this more seriously – the seriousness that I think it demands.”
How it was supposed to work
Possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis or marijuana paraphernalia was supposed to carry a $100 fine or the completion of 10 hours of community service. There were some caveats, including that the person had to be over 18 and could not be in the process of smoking it.
Under existing law, conviction of 20 grams or less can carry a one-year maximum jail sentence and one year driver’s license suspension. The intent of the ordinance was to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and not saddle people with criminal records. Commissioners also felt the department and its officers had better things to do with their time.
What were the consequences of not enforcing it?
The Herald-Tribune reviewed police records from Dec. 3, 2019 until Dec. 15, 2020. In most cases, suspects were issued a summons to appear in court and charged with other crimes.
Records show the man who received a citation requested police assistance at a bus stop on Siesta Drive. It was late and he was intoxicated. He told the officer he was an alcoholic and tried admitting himself into Sarasota Memorial Hospital the night before but got tired of waiting and left.
He was taken into custody under a Florida law that allows someone to be voluntarily committed for drug or alcohol treatment. The man voluntarily produced a small bag of marijuana. He was issued a citation and sent to First Step of Sarasota, a comprehensive mental health and substance abuse treatment center.
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In all, there were seven arrests or summons for court in the first year of Sarasota’s new law. One was a passenger in a hit and run crash who ran from an officer. Once in custody, the suspect said he ran because he had a small amount of marijuana.
Two people were arrested while in the process of smoking cannabis. In one case, records show, a man was issued a court summons after a bike patrol officer found him packing a pipe.
“It’s just weed, man,” the suspect told the officer.
In another case, an officer found two men passed out in Pioneer Park. They had an open container of vodka on the table between them, the officer said in his report. As the officer approached, he spotted a marijuana joint with “a green leafy substance around it” between one man’s legs.
“At the time, I did not have any backup officers and was dealing with two subjects,” the officer wrote in his report. “Due to safety concerns,” the officer put the Black man in handcuffs.
He issued the white man a written trespass order. The Black man received a trespass order and issued a notice to appear in court for possession of drug paraphernalia. The officer found a cigarette box with a crack pipe inside.
Some suspects had their licenses suspended and other criminal sanctions placed on them.
“People were arrested and this goes to severity and I don’t want to gloss over this,” Brody said. “That’s concerning and having looked at this over the last several weeks, it weighs on me.”
Still, Brody said he does not blame the Sarasota Police officers patrolling the streets.
“It was a lack of emphasis and clarification from the top down,” Brody said.
Moving forward, Rieser said training will be key.
“Once the officers have good training, the supervisors understand what is needed and they’re looking out for what the officers are doing,” Rieser said. “I see this program expanding and seeing the vision that was originally intended to see.”
Timothy Fanning covers Sarasota government for the Herald-Tribune. Reach Timothy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @timothyjfanning. Support the Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.