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Carpentersville joins towns where most marijuana busts seem more like parking tickets

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says she has talked Chicago’s police commissioner about halting arrests for low-level drug possession.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says she has talked to Chicago’s police commissioner about halting arrests for low-level drug possession. | File~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:13AM

In most towns, here’s what happens if an officer finds a small joint in your pocket:

You will be arrested. The officer will drive you back to the municipal or county jail, where another officer will fingerprint you, take your mugshot and hold you in a cell until you post bond.

The police department will send the joint to a state crime lab to make sure it’s really marijuana.

Meanwhile, if you don’t or can’t post bond, you’ll sit in jail until your first court date. Because you’re facing possible jail time and a $1,500 fine for the misdemeanor, you’re more likely to go to trial, at which point a police officer will have to come to testify.

Facing this long and expensive process, some towns are treating arrests for having a small amount of marijuana more like they would treat a parking violation. They simply issue the offender a ticket charging him with breaking a local ordinance, and levy a small fine. Aurora, Sugar Grove and Yorkville already have ticketed low-level, first-time offenders, with varying levels of success. In the past few months, Oswego and Cook County have also considered issuing only tickets.

And now Carpentersville has joined the trend, after its village board passed ordinances last spring making it possible for police to handle not only low-level marijuana possession but also minor battery and shoplifting cases as mere violations of a village ordinance.

‘A second chance’

Officials in most villages and cities that have tried this approach — called “decriminalization” in some quarters — point to how it saves officers the time and expense of traveling to the circuit court to testify. And it also may increase income to the city or village, because fines for a local ordinance violation all go into the village coffers instead of being divided between village and county.

But those weren’t the main reasons the Carpentersville Police Department urged the change on the village board, according to police Cmdr. Tim Bosshart.

“It’s not to generate revenue. It’s to give people a second chance,” so that one relatively minor offense doesn’t wreck the offender’s life, Bosshart said.

“With retail theft cases, usually the offender is a teenager or a young adult or maybe a woman going through a divorce. A lot of the times, this arrest will be the only time this person is going to do something wrong in their life. Yet (if it is treated like a misdemeanor through the regular court system), it goes onto their record. And since 9/11, every employer does background checks for things like that.”

If a marijuana user, shoplifter or battery perpetrator is issued one of the new ordinance-violation tickets, Bosshart said, “We still have a record of the arrest, but they don’t get fingerprinted and it doesn’t go onto their FBI record.”

“A lot of this remains discretionary with the officer” making the arrest, Bosshart said, so each case can be handled based on its circumstances. “Our officers now have the option of handling these offenses like a parking ticket or as a state violation. If it’s two kids fighting at the high school, they’re more likely to get a ‘parking ticket’ for battery. If somebody gets cold-cocked out on the street, the offender is more likely to face a state battery charge.”

Someone charged under Carpentersville ordinances typically would be fined $75, Bosshart said.

In ordinance-violation marijuana cases, Bosshart said, Carpentersville now saves the suspected “joint,” cannabis flakes or smoking-pipe residue but doesn’t go to the expense of sending that to a crime lab for testing unless the defendant challenges the ticket.

He said the new system hasn’t been in place long enough to have statistics about how it has affected the number of regular arrests.

Others cautious

In South Elgin, Police Chief Chris Merritt said marijuana tickets were discussed within the department, but South Elgin officers decided that a better approach is simply not to charge an offender with any crime at all if a misdemeanor arrest seems excessive.

“If the amount of marijuana found doesn’t warrant the arrest of the suspect, then maybe we should just rely on officer discretion and confiscate the marijuana and release the person with a warning,” Merritt said. “And if the amount does warrant an arrest, then we should put it into the system, so that if this person is stopped later, those officers will be able to see that this person has a history.”

If everything is just handled quietly within the village, Merritt said, that interrupts “the chain of information” that allows an officer to tell whether someone they’re dealing with has been stopped before for bad behavior. Theoretically, a pot user in a “pot ticket” village could get ticket after ticket that result in nothing except minor fines when he should be getting drug-abuse treatment and/or more serious punishment.

Last year, South Elgin arrested 54 people on cannabis (marijuana) charges, three for possession of more serious controlled substances, and eight for possession of drug paraphernalia, which can range from a marijuana pipe to a hypodermic syringe.

In Hampshire, Acting Police Chief Brian Thompson said village officials also talked about treating more offenses as mere ordinance violations, but the village attorney decided that would be impractical unless the village set up an administrative hearing officer in the village.

Except for a raid last December in which 75 marijuana plants were found growing in a house on Jefferson Avenue — which likely would be treated as a felony violation in any village — Thompson said Hampshire sees only a handful of marijuana cases each year. He said they usually involve small amounts caught in the possession of a driver who has been stopped for some traffic violation.

“But I believe it should be illegal, because it’s a gateway drug,” Thompson said.

In Elgin, police spokeswoman Sue Olafson said that “there has been no discussion about changing local ordinance on how we prosecute cannabis arrests criminally. But we’re always interested in how other communities are moving forward with such ordinances.”

Last year, she said, Elgin had 244 cannabis arrests, or about two every three days. So far this year, there have been 165.

Success, failure

Elsewhere in the Fox Valley, Sugar Grove pioneered the use of marijuana tickets. In 2008, the Sugar Grove Police Department formalized its policy to allow officers to write city tickets to first-time offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana.

Officers also still had discretion to make an arrest if they thought that was more appropriate. Tickets for first-time marijuana possession or drug-paraphernalia possession were $200 (since increased to $325), in line with what judges typically handed down.

Since 2008, Sugar Grove police have issued 25 marijuana tickets and 30 paraphernalia tickets. Sugar Grove Detective John Sizer said no one who was issued a Sugar Grove marijuana ticket has ever been arrested again for the same offense.

“It’s a huge time-saver for everyone,” he said.

About a month after Sugar Grove changed its rules, Aurora passed its own marijuana-ticket ordinance, authorizing tickets for first-time offenders found with less than 30 grams. But less than a year later, the city stopped issuing such tickets.

“It’s a nice thing in concept, but it just hasn’t worked out well,” said Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas. “It really hasn’t turned out as nice and clean as we’d hoped.”

Anyone who was ticketed could still request an administrative hearing. Thomas said the hitch came when suspects figured out they could force the city to send the substance to state labs to confirm it is marijuana. At that point, it no longer became time- or cost-effective to issue the tickets.

The department is trying to move marijuana testing into its own lab, Thomas said.

Thomas was also intrigued by an alternative proposal: In Sugar Grove, anyone who wants to fight the ticket has the charges upgraded to a misdemeanor.

Cook County

In July, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she had talked to Chicago’s police commissioner about halting arrests for low-level drug possession.

“I suggested to him that although the law is pretty clear that such possession is a violation of the law, that since the judges routinely and almost universally dismiss such low-level drug charges, that the police might stop arresting people for this since it clogs up our jail,” Preckwinkle said.

In 2009 the Cook County Board approved an ordinance that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure allows Cook County sheriff’s police to issue a $200 ticket for possessing 10 grams or less.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington D.C., said 14 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and others have significantly lowered fines. In Ohio, up to 100 grams of marijuana is a $150 fine. In Illinois, possession of 100 grams of marijuana is a felony charge with a fine up to $25,000.

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