By Alfa · Sep 27, 2004 ·
  1. Alfa

    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."

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