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Police Adapting to New Pot Law

by Hugh McQuaid | Jul 7, 2011 4:59am
(0) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Courts, Town News, Legal

Police agencies around the state have been experiencing growing pains as they adapt to a new law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

As of the first of the month, people over age 21 who are caught with less than a half an ounce of marijuana will get a $150 ticket for their first offense. The fine for possession increases on subsequent offenses, and on the third time, offenders will be required to pay out-of-pocket to attend drug education classes.

—OnTheHorn Video | Senator/Police Officer concerned about decriminalization, but hopes for the best

The new law changes little for minors, who will still automatically be referred to juvenile court. But the statutes now reflect possession of marijuana for adults under age 21 as similar to underage possession of alcohol — if they are caught with it they can expect to lose their drivers license for two months.

But the new law represents a significant departure from how marijuana offenses were traditionally dealt with by the criminal justice system, and law enforcement officials all over Connecticut seem a bit apprehensive.

“It’s just growing pains,” said State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. “As with any new law, there’s a learning curve.”

Vance said he didn’t know of any of citations written so far by state police as of Thursday, but he also said that is not unusual with a new law.

“We try to be reasonable,” he said.

He likened it to changes in the laws regarding cellphone use while driving. Then, there was an educational period where troopers issued a lot of warnings, he said. The public does not seem to have a full understanding of the law yet, he said. Many people aren’t aware that if they’re under 21 they will lose their licenses, he said. The fact that minors still end up in court also doesn’t seem to have sunk in, he said.

“People think it’s just like a traffic ticket no matter what,” he said.

But the educational period is limited. As the public learns the ins and outs of the law and officers become familiar with the mechanics of it, enforcement is ramped up, he said.

West Hartford Police Chief James J. Strillacci said his department has been taking steps to adapt to the change, which presents some logistical challenges for police.

He said that before the change in the statute, anyone possessing cannabis could be arrested regardless of quantity. Now officers must determine how much a suspect has on them and that can be difficult, he said.

“Can you tell me what a half-ounce of marijuana is just by looking at it?” he asked.

So the department has been working on procuring portable scales, which he said he expected to have last week but found that the retailer was sold out.

Vance said state troopers will be able to eyeball a half an ounce of cannabis without too much difficulty, which is fortunate because arming Connecticut’s 1,200 troopers with portable scales would be costly.

The law presents other challenges for departments, Strillacci said. For instance, it’s not clear exactly how the substance should be handled after it is confiscated, he said. It must be taken and at some point destroyed. But police question how long they should keep it as evidence in case someone charged decides to fight the citation, he said.

Strillacci , who also is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said it’s too soon to tell what the long-term implications of the law will be. Part of the legislature’s intent in passing the measure was to cut down on the amount of time and resources police and courts spend dealing with low level offenses. And writing a ticket is certainly a shorter transaction than making an arrest, Strillacci said.

But he said police often discover evidence of more serious crimes in the process of investigating marijuana arrests. That’s going to change, he said.

In the end, the law will become clearer as courts take up individual cases, he said, adding that police don’t make laws — they just enforce them.

“That’s the way of the world. The legislature makes a law and we have to figure out what they meant by it. If we have trouble interpreting one, the courts can clarify. That’s the American way,” he said.

Manchester Detective Sgt. Chris Davis agreed. He said he wasn’t aware of any citations being issued by the department yet, but said they have been in contact with local courts trying to get answers to procedural questions left unclear in the statute.

The department is looking to local courts to provide fee schedules with the infraction, he said.

Strillacci said the Centralized Infractions Bureau also has yet to catch up to the new law. Most laws go into effect in October and the current fee schedule, a reference for officers with a breakdown of different infractions, does not reflect the new marijuana citation, he said.

“Our officers don’t have the latest and greatest information from the Infractions Bureau yet. We have been trying to get them the information piecemeal,” he said.

Some have speculated the law will be difficult for police to enforce.  Because possession of cannabis now amounts to an infraction, offenders won’t be arrested and processed. So if someone is caught with the substance but does not have identification on them, officers may have to trust the offender to give them a valid name and address.

But Davis said police may be able to bring that person in until their identity can be verified. The law allows for police detain people for traffic infractions if they aren’t carrying ID.

“Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point, where we are bringing people in for infractions,” Davis said.

Vance said identities will be verified. But it does complicate things for troopers. They may have to make phone calls and run computer searches and if it comes to it, detain the offender, he said.

“It is legitimate and legal to detain them,” he said.

The effects of the law will become clearer as judges make decisions on specific cases and set case law. That is how it played out in Massachusetts, which passed a similar law in 2008, substituting an arrest for an ounce or less of cannabis with a $100 ticket.

But according to Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association Executive Director Chief A. Wayne Sampson (Ret.), case law in that state has not been kind to the law enforcement community.

Unlike Connecticut, Massachusetts decriminalized the substance under a citizen ballot initiative, bypassing the legislative process and adequate input from the law enforcement community, he said. There, officers are limited in their ability to demand identification and enforce the collection of the citations.

And two years after its passage, the law is being clarified in the courts.

Earlier this year a supreme court judge handed down a decision, ruling that the odor of cannabis no longer constituted probable cause to search a vehicle.

“The law is becoming more complicated because court decisions are making officers’ jobs more restrictive,” Sampson said.

In 2008, Sampson told the New York Times the law would result in the de facto legalization of marijuana because of enforcement challenges. Now he describes the law as not working out too well.

Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the citations given out in the state’s various law enforcement communities are actually being paid, he said. That leads to patchy enforcement.

“Some communities are reluctant to get involved with civil citations because they feel it’s just not worth it,” he said.

In order for any law to be effective, the public must know that enforcement will be consistent across the board, he said.

Despite the rocky start that accompanies any change, Sampson said there’s a chance Connecticut’s law will avoid the pitfalls of Massachusetts’. For one thing, it was the subject of multiple public hearings through the legislative process, where law enforcement officials had the opportunity to weigh in. Sampson said that is a good thing.

“If the concerns of the law enforcement community were properly addressed than the noncriminal disposition of small amounts of marijuana does not adversely affect law enforcement,” he said.

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