In recent months, there has been a trend toward the decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana. In lieu of an arrest and subsequent prosecution, the offender receives a civil citation, which requires the payment of a fine. The benefits of this change in policy for an accused person are plenary. While a police officer always had the discretion to issue a notice to appear in misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, many offenders were nonetheless subject to physical arrest, which meant a trip to the county jail and the necessity of posting of bail. In either instance, the accused would often have a number of ensuing court dates, the payment of a fine, and for those that could afford it, the expense of hiring an attorney. Offenders with prior criminal records are often precluded from diversion programs, or the withholding of adjudication. A criminal conviction for possession of marijuana, even in misdemeanor amounts, will result in a one year driver's license revocation. By decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, offenders in many locales throughout Florida will avoid these adverse consequences.
According to a Tampa Bay Times article published on April 1st, 2016, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has proposed a broader alternative to the civil citation program for marijuana arrests. The sheriff wants to create a pre-arrest diversion program for adult offenders who would otherwise be subject to arrest and, in all likelihood, prosecution for a variety of minor criminal offenses. The program, according to the Times, would be modeled after the agency's juvenile pre-arrest diversion program, which has been in effect now for a number of years. In 2011, four law enforcement agencies in Hillsborough County implemented pre-arrest diversion programs for first time juvenile offenders, and the St. Petersburg Police Department followed suit last year. St. Petersburg's program, dubbed "Second Chance" offers juvenile offenders an opportunity to keep their records clean by performing service in the community (including trash removal).
Under Sheriff Gualtieri's proposed program, adult offenders would have opportunities similar to their juvenile counterparts for certain types of low level offenses, in that they would avoid arrest (or the receipt of a civil citation, which would also create a record of the offense). According to the Times, the sheriff's plan "addresses what has become a nationwide call for reforming a criminal justice system that relies too heavily on incarceration, often for low-level crimes, and disproportionately affects African Americans." Given that the Pinellas County Sheriff's office has taken over the administration of probation supervision in misdemeanor cases, it appears that the agency is well positioned to implement a program of this nature.
Similar to the civil citation program being implemented in Tampa and a number of other Florida cities for marijuana possession, offenders under the Sheriff's pre-arrest diversion program would avoid many of the adverse (and potentially life altering) consequences of an arrest and criminal prosecution. Further, because there would be no record of the arrest (assuming successful completion of the program), there would be no need for the person to have the record sealed or expunged, which can only be done once in a lifetime. That way, in the event of a subsequent arrest or prosecution, sealing or expunging could still be an option.
Given the adverse impact an arrest can have on a person, when it comes to employment opportunities, loan applications, or even obtaining a lease agreement, this program affords a number of benefits for those willing to participate. According to the Times, the Pinellas County Commission is set to hold a workshop on the issue on Tuesday and "should give the sheriff's proposal a full and fair hearing". As always, I will keep you all updated as this progresses.