Following the lead of many other cities, counties, and states across the country, more than two years ago Palm Beach County and West Palm Beach City Commissioners opted to decriminalize possession of pot, allowing law enforcement to give people $100 tickets if they're caught.
So why isn’t it being used?
19.9 grams of marijuana, $20 of Mary Jane; even just a joint, could get you in big trouble in Palm Beach County.
“The most I'd gotten was a speeding ticket,” said Rudy Laws. That is, before last February.
Laws was stopped for speeding by PBSO. “He (the deputy) had asked me when he first walked up to the car if I had anything on me and I told him, 'yes' and I pulled it right out and gave it to him,” said Laws.
“It” being 7 grams of marijuana. “Actually I got it for my father because he has PTSD. I get that for him on occasion because it helps him deal with his ailments,” said Laws.
Laws was issued a notice to appear before a judge. He later agreed to go to drug court in exchange for having the charges dropped. But you can still look up Rudy Laws’s name on the Palm Beach County Clerks of Courts site and see he got caught with pot.
Yet, the punishment doesn’t have to be so blunt.
“An arrest, even if it's a misdemeanor, means a year in jail, a year on probation, and a record. This can dramatically affect the futures of our young people, and go with them throughout their lives; it can be devastating to them,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Paulette Burdick.
Burdick and her fellow Palm Beach County Commissioners, as well as the city of West Palm Beach, passed resolutions in 2015 that gave deputies and officers the discretion to write a $100 civil citation or give 10 hours of community service to first-time offenders caught with 20 grams or less of pot. The program is for those 18 or older.
“The civil citation would eliminate that criminal arrest record, and that's very important for all of our young people, for everybody who is looking to get a job and not have to fill out the box,” said commissioner Burdick. “It (the record) prevents a lot of our children from going on to some colleges and universities because of the record, and future job opportunities.”
Before the program was enacted, offenders would be arrested or given a notice to appear.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche was the only one to vote against the citations.
“Marijuana is a gateway drug,” said commissioner Valeche. “It’s illegal for a reason.”
Contact 5 found zero citations have been written under the program. And since the program began, on average, 4 people a day in Palm Beach County are charged with possession of fewer than 20 grams.
PBSO and West Palm PD say they’re going to keep following state law, which says it's illegal to possess any amount of pot.
“Clearly, the state law should be prevalent in this case,” said commissioner Valeche.
“Maybe they can better use their time and resources in other areas,” said commissioner Burdick.
Miami Dade County has a similar civil citation program and they use it, writing almost 8,000 citations since 2015.
“A lot of times this is a very minimal amount of marijuana. It's not like we're issuing citations of 19.9 grams, the usual amount is much much less than that. Between 1, 2, maybe even half a gram,” said Miami Dade Police Sergeant Aida Fina-Milian.
“It’s always up to the officers’ discretion. Evaluate the situation, see how this person's attitude is, do they really not care, if they had involvement with the law, and are dismissive of the law itself, or if it's someone that truly made a mistake, goofed up, their first real involvement with the law and give them a second chance to avoid giving them a criminal history,” said Sergeant Fina-Milian.
Contact 5 asked the sergeant if the program is decriminalizing pot. “No, not at all. This is not in conflict with the state statute, this is simply another avenue,” says Sergeant Fina-Milian.
Sergeant Fina-Milian says the citation program actually saves the taxpayers money too. “Part of the reason for the ordinance is that the cost kind of outweighed the benefit. It really wasn't, for lack of a better term, cost-effective to have someone be booked into the jail, spend all this money and then have the possibility the case is just going to be thrown out.”
Rudy Laws didn’t know about the citation program. Contact 5 asked him how he felt, learning that he could have just gotten a fine and community service. “It's upsetting because any job that I look for in the future that may involve a deep, you know, background search, that will show up on it.,” said Laws.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and West Palm Police Department refused to be interviewed for this story, saying they said all they needed to say in 2015.
PBSO never spoke to WPTV on camera then, but did tell the Palm Beach Post in 2015, “people caught for the first time with misdemeanor amounts of marijuana are not arrested and not sent to jail.” Instead, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said, deputies issue NTAs, which are notices to appear in court. Bradshaw told the Post, that way offenders are offered the choice to undergo drug counseling and no jail time.
Still, advocates for the citation program says notices to appear, like in Rudy Laws’s case, do put someone’s name into the court clerk’s site, whether charges are ultimately dropped or not, and that can show up on a background check.