Small-time marijuana cases taxing on legal system

Published: Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.

When it comes to small amounts of marijuana, legal adversaries Bill Cervone and Stacy Scott are in agreement.

In general, say the 8th Circuit's state attorney and public defender, people who are caught with a few joints don't belong in jail unless they have a criminal record of repeat or serious offenses.

Yet, hundreds of people in Alachua County each year are charged solely with possession of 20 grams or less — the legal line between misdemeanor and felony. The charge could cost them hundreds of dollars in court costs, the loss of their driver's license for two years and possibly their job or future career.

So as sometimes happens with laws written by legislators who want to be tough on crime, the front-line soldiers at times use discretion — and legal procedures — to soften the blow.

“Pot possession can result in a loss of driver's license, and I'm just not a big fan of costing people a way to earn their living or get their education over something like that. (Using legal procedures to soften the blow) is an option that we frequently will utilize,” Cervone said.

People caught with possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana can be charged via arrest and jail, a notice to appear in court, or through a sworn complaint filed with the State Attorney's Office.

The costs of such arrests go beyond the price paid by the defendant. An already cash-strapped legal system must devote resources to hundreds of these cases each year.

Cervone and Scott said it is difficult to pin down the costs of the cases to their operations, but the stand-alone pot arrests represent a fair amount of their caseloads.

Cervone said that in 2012 his office handled 8,800 misdemeanor cases, 685 of which were for marijuana possession. He had 819 marijuana cases in 2011 and 715 in 2010.

He said it costs about $21 an hour for a misdemeanor prosecutor to work a case, and these cases account for approximately 7-8 percent of their workload. Overall, a lot of taxpayer resources are consumed in the arrest and prosecution of these cases.

For instance, if an arrest is made, the officer must take the person to jail and write an arrest report — taking that officer off the street.

Gainesville Police Department spokesman Officer Ben Tobias said the average time it takes an officer from initial contact to the officer being available again after an arrest is about one hour and 40 minutes. By contrast, the average time to issue a notice to appear is 46 minutes.

Tobias said those averages were based on the 49 stand-alone misdemeanor possession cases GPD worked in June.

At the jail, staff must book the arrested person, and classification staff must determine where to place the person.

Court services staff must complete a preliminary investigation to make a recommendation to a judge at first appearance on whether the person should have bond set, be released on his or her own recognizance, or stay in jail. It costs about $122 a day to keep a person in jail, according to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.

If the person is released, jail staff must go through the process of booking the person out. Then the State Attorney's Office and possibly the Public Defender's Office get involved.

Regardless of the method of charging, the agencies must take in the case, assign it to an attorney, file paperwork and be in court for arraignment, at which point a plea is entered.

At that point, it is not uncommon for a defendant to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement or a plea bargain to plead to possession of paraphernalia — which can include the rolling paper enclosing the marijuana — and get off with paying $300 to $400 in court costs.

The person keeps his driver's license and, if all terms of the agreement are met, the case is over.

“We put all of these resources into it so the person can pay court costs,” Scott said. “If they don't pay the court costs and don't come back to court, they get a warrant. Then, the sheriff has to serve it, and they are back in jail. It starts this cascade of events that's really not worth it.”

While an arrest on a misdemeanor marijuana charge can be an inconvenience at best, it can have serious impacts for some — loss of a job, a police record.

But for one University of Florida student, the consequence of an arrest for a small amount of marijuana was life-changing and tragic.

In 2003, the student was arrested on a misdemeanor possession charge and was to serve a weekend in the Alachua County jail.

He was put in a pod with an inmate, Randolph Jackson, who was awaiting trial for the rape of a woman. Jackson was said to be used as an “enforcer” in the pod by corrections officers to punish unruly inmates.

Jackson raped the student, which spurred an investigation that led to others coming forward to say they, too, had been raped while in jail.

Eventually, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office paid $1.25 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the student and two other rape victims.

“He was at a concert, and people were smoking marijuana at the concert,” said attorney Robert Rush, who represented the student and others in the lawsuit. “An undercover officer came up and said, ‘Can I have a little bit of your marijuana?' It ended up in a misdemeanor arrest for possession. He was doing a weekend in jail. He went in on Friday night, and it was that night that it happened.”

Rush, who has represented people on misdemeanor pot arrests, said he doesn't believe the Legislature will change the law anytime soon.

“I think Florida is going to be 10 years down the road because we have such an antiquated view of it,” he said. “We just have this draconian view.”

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