COP WANTS TO FINE - NOT JAIL - POTHEADS
Could pot smokers help solve Chicago's budget woes?
A Chicago Police sergeant thinks so -- and his plan is getting serious
attention from the department's top brass.
Tom Donegan, a sergeant in the Wentworth District on the South Side,
was fed up with making arrests for small amounts of marijuana -- only
to see judges dismiss the charges. The last straw was when a convicted
drug dealer's case was dropped.
So he drew up a proposal for Chicago to write tickets for people
caught with small amounts of marijuana -- instead of locking them up.
Donegan estimates the city could have raised nearly $5 million in
fines in 2003 alone, based on court records he obtained.
"The argument that always comes up is that this involves
decriminalizing marijuana," he said. "This proposal is not about
decriminalizing marijuana. Rather, this proposal will increase the
number of people who are actually penalized for their possession of
lesser amounts of cannabis." Donegan sent his seven-page proposal to
police Supt. Phil Cline and other top city officials last week. Cline
is having his chief of staff review the document, said police
spokesman David Bayless.
Donegan obtained court records showing that 94 percent of the 6,954
marijuana cases involving less than 2.5 grams were dropped in 2003, 81
percent of the 6,945 cases involving 2.5 to 10 grams, and 52 percent
of the 1,261 cases involving 10 to 30 grams.
On Friday, Cline said he was aware of the high dismissal rate for
charges involving small amounts of pot.
"That's troubling to us," said Cline, a former commander of the
narcotics section. "We're looking for a better way to handle it." Even
before he received Donegan's proposal, Cline said he had planned to
meet with Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine and E. Kenneth
Wright, presiding judge for the First Municipal District, to talk
about dismissed narcotics cases.
"Our goal is to keep officers on the street," Cline said. Donegan said
he drew his inspiration from Darien in DuPage County. There, the
police have the option of writing tickets for marijuana possession
under 30 grams or they can arrest the suspect on a misdemeanor state
charge. They've been doing it that way since the late 1970s, said
Darien Deputy Police Chief John Cooper.
"I understand Chicago's predicament," Cooper said. "You have to pay
the officer to go to court. It i
s an expensive process." The village's
pot fines -- which range from $75 to $500 -- are handled in traffic
court in Downers Grove, a closer drive for Darien officers than the
DuPage County courthouse in Wheaton where state charges are handled.
People ticketed for pot possession must show up in traffic court to
pay their fines, Cooper said. They usually do not challenge the
tickets, probably because the offense does not become part of their
criminal record, he said. There were 30 such tickets issued last year,
Darien police said. If officers catch a repeat drug offender with a
small amount of pot, they can make an arrest on a state misdemeanor
charge. Cooper said he did not think many of those misdemeanor charges
are dropped in the DuPage County court system, unlike in Cook County.
"But if you get the teenager with a small amount, even residue, you
can fine them," he said. "It won't give them a criminal record, but it
will teach them a lesson."
Donegan suggested Chicago handle fines for marijuana possession
through the city's administrative hearing system, which now deals with
police citations such as drinking in the public way. He suggested
fines of $250 for possession of up to 10 grams of pot, $500 for 10 to
20 grams and $1,000 for 20 to 30 grams.
"It's an easy program to implement, requiring City Council approval of
an ordinance," Donegan said. "It's easy for the street officer to use.
It actually penalizes people caught with lesser amounts of cannabis.
It removes tens of thousands of cases from the over-burdened Cook
County court system. And it raises much-needed revenue for the city."