Darnell: Don't criticize law enforcement for enforcing drug laws

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

If Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell refused to hire everyone who admitted on their application to ever using marijuana, she might not have enough deputies to patrol, technicians to process crime scenes, detectives to investigate and the employees in support.

But that doesn't mean Darnell is going to instruct deputies to stop arresting people for small amounts of pot as suggested by Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson.

“If people believe that the law needs to be amended or taken off the books, then so be it,” she said. “When Commissioner Hutchinson came to meet with me to discuss that marijuana may become legalized in 2014, I said that's news to me.

“People who are bemoaning and criticizing law enforcement for being charged for marijuana possession — they know it's against the law and are being critical of us for enforcing the law. I don't buy that.”

Darnell noted that she has never received a call from a resident asking her not to enforce marijuana laws. On the other hand, she has received numerous calls from people asking that deputies snuff out obvious drug dealing.

A deputy who decides to file a case has various options — arrest, a notice to appear in court, or a sworn complaint with the State Attorney's Office. The person's attitude goes a long way toward determining which option is chosen, she said.

Being belligerent with the deputy or resisting likely will land the person in jail. People who comply might be more likely to get a notice to appear.

Still, Darnell recognizes that marijuana use is commonplace. A Gainesville native, she said she used it herself when she was in college. She has degrees from Santa Fe College and the University of Florida.

Owning up to using it in the past is not a dead end to a job at ASO, she said.

“We hire people who have smoked. Find somebody who hasn't. You can't smoke after you get hired, and you have to have had a two-year period of having not smoked prior to being hired,” Darnell said.

“We will not hire someone who has sold it. You are hard pressed these days to find somebody who hasn't tried it, and smoking marijuana doesn't necessarily make you a bad person, but you can't get around the fact that it's against the law.”

Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones, like Darnell, said the agency has to enforce the law but often uses the option of issuing a notice to appear — 394 such cases in 2012.

Jones said officers come across people with marijuana through a number of ways. Some of the use is open; sometimes it is smelled by an officer. Traffic stops for minor offenses — dark window tint, a blown tail light — lead to many arrests.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report stating that law enforcement officers in Alachua County arrest more than six times as many black defendants as white defendants on marijuana charges, although research shows use of the drug is about as common among whites as blacks.

GPD has a study underway to determine the reasons for disproportionate arrests for overall crimes and to develop ways to address it.

Jones said racial profiling should not be practiced by police.

“That is something I will not tolerate,” Jones said. “The only reason you stop me when operating a motor vehicle and I'm black — it's wrong, it is against our policies and procedures, and it is also against the Constitution.”

The University of Florida Police Department handles all cases of marijuana on campus. If an individual is found to have a misdemeanor amount of marijuana on campus, UPD will issue a notice to appear. The person then will have to report for a court date in front of a judge.

UPD Capt. Jeff Holcomb said even though marijuana possession is not a big issue on campus compared with bicycle thefts, UPD must continue carrying out the law.

“Marijuana possession, like underage drinking, is a state law,” he said. “It's one of the laws we enforce, and we will continue to do so until the law changes.”

UPD will always make an arrest if an individual is caught with a felony amount of marijuana, he said.

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