RACINE — While at the state level discussion is ongoing about the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana possession, at the local level the City of Racine has moved forward with a directive requiring Racine Police to issue municipal citations for first-time marijuana possession of less than 25 grams, rather than referring the offense to the district attorney for possible charges.
It’s a directive that Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson believes is overreaching. She has called on Racine Police Chief Art Howell to continue to follow state law.
“Despite the Racine City Council’s attempts to control how the Racine Police Department operates, it is my opinion that the council has exceeded their authority with its order regarding how police handle marijuana charges,” Hanson said. “The council has no power to order sworn law enforcement officers to ignore state law.”
The municipal ordinance, which includes monetary citations for first-time marijuana offenses under 25 grams, has been in place since 1990, but officers were given discretion as to whether to issue a citation or request state charges for first-time offenses within the amount perimeters.
The directive takes away the Racine Police Department’s discretion. Racine City Attorney Scott Letteney has argued that the directive is admissible by law.
In a December emailed statement to The Journal Times, Howell said: “Whether crafting advisory directives or enacting new ordinances, the act of defining the scope of police authority and/or taking steps to remove or dilute police discretion, from my perspective, does not fall under the enumerated powers granted to local elected officials.”
However, on Jan. 17, Letteney issued an email to the City Council and Howell formally notifying him of the directive and officially putting it into effect.
Howell responded by saying “I cannot imagine a scenario where I (or any other chief) would direct officers to ignore an official ordinance adopted by Common Council. It should, however, be noted that the absence of broader state legislation (that provides direction to, and governs all sworn LE officers statewide), will leave open the probability that our regional partners (FBI and RCSO personnel) will not be obligated to follow a city adopted Ordinance.”
Racine Alderman John Tate II, who has been an advocate for decriminalizing first-time marijuana offenses in the city, said this shouldn’t be an issue of law enforcement versus the City Council.
“It’s for us being with and supporting the will of the voters, who ultimately want to see law enforcement put their resources into things that really protect the community and serve the community. We don’t want to see our officers tracking down a person with a joint,” Tate said.
“This is not against or opposed to law enforcement. It’s saying we recognize that the role that you have is critical. The resources you have are limited. And because they are limited, let’s make sure we are focusing on other areas.”
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In Hanson’s comments to The Journal Times, she said the criminal court system already had a program in effect that is called the T.A.S.C or THC Alternative Solution Class, which diverts first, second and even sometimes third-time marijuana offenders out of the criminal court. It requires offenders to complete 12 hours of education so that people who use marijuana better understand the risks of using it and the potential for addiction.
“We are trying to help people, especially young people, make better choices for themselves, rather than having them pay a ticket and continue to use. After taking the class, charges are then dismissed for first-time users. In the case of repeat offenders, charges are reduced to ordinances or misdemeanors,” Hanson said.
Tate, who hadn’t previously heard about the program, said the city’s new directive will not stop that program from existing. He thought the program sounded fantastic and thought it could possibly be replicated at the municipal level. He also said the district attorney should be happy that the new directive will help reduce her staff’s workload, by keeping more minor offenses out of the criminal court system.
Not going to attorney general
Howell had previously said he wanted Hanson and state Attorney General Josh Kaul to determine if the city’s ordinance is “in line with (and not less restrictive than) existing state statutes.”
“Once the various process and policy questions are resolved, and clear direction is received from the attorney general, we will move forward as dictated by law,” he said.
However, a letter from the City Attorney’s Office said: “This issue will not ever go to the Wisconsin Attorney General. Municipal government may not seek an opinion from the Attorney General. The Attorney General may not issue opinions to municipal governments. The Wisconsin Attorney General only issues opinions to state government officials, county government officials, and district attorneys.”
Hanson said her office will continue to accept criminal marijuana cases from law enforcement agencies, including the City of Racine, regardless of the City Council directive.
“I strongly encourage Chief Howell to join me and follow state law, rather than this attempt to undermine the criminal justice system, and ensure fairness for all residents of Racine County,” Hanson said.
Howell was not immediately available for comment Friday regarding Hanson’s response to the ordinance.
A letter from the city attorney stated: “The order to Chief Howell is in effect. Any person to whom an order is issued disobeys it to his or her own peril. If Chief Howell does not obey the order, it is up to the mayor and/or the Common Council to respond, if either chooses to do so.”