Although Columbia police officers have made plain their disapproval of the city’s new marijuana ordinance, they are enforcing the law with zeal, and the numbers show it.
Columbia police have ticketed more people per month for misdemeanor possession of marijuana since voters approved Proposition 2 in November, but most are not being prosecuted. First-time offenders are given a second chance as part of the municipal court’s marijuana deferral program.
The way the court is handling the cases prompted the Columbia Police Officers Association to start a petition drive to ask the City Council to repeal the ordinance. The ordinance passed with 61 percent support on Nov. 2.
During a news conference held Friday to announce the drive, CPOA President Sterling Infield said the organization was caught sleeping before the election. It did not organize any opposition, because it did not think the proposition would pass, Infield said.
Police Chief Randy Boehm said officers will distribute the petitions during off-duty hours and when they are not wearing their police uniforms. Police officers must enforce the law, he said, even though most do not approve of it.
“My job, whether I like the ordinances or not, is to make sure that our officers are following the law, and we are,” Boehm said.
But recent talk of the marijuana ordinance has dominated discussion on CPOA’s online message board. The conversation stems from a letter Infield wrote to Assistant City Manager Paula Hertwig Hopkins last month to voice the concerns of the police organization. In that letter, he connected the marijuana ordinance with the murder of Officer Molly Bowden.
“To stop this ordinance would bring a small degree of justice back to Officer Molly Bowden and Officer Curtis Brown, who risked all to protect their community,” Infield wrote.
On Friday, Infield backed away from that assertion, saying that the association is not trying to relate the two incidents, but that police continue to deal with drugs every day.
From November to February, Columbia police wrote 141 tickets for misdemeanor marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. That number increased from the 100 arrests police made in the same time period a year ago. The number of arrests in the period was 69 two years ago.
In February, police issued 44 tickets, the biggest monthly total in the last 10 years.
Boehm said police are not going out of their way to enforce the ordinance. In nearly every case, a ticket is issued when an officer discovers the marijuana during other law enforcement activities, such as traffic stops.
Proposition 2 made marijuana possession a municipal charge handled by the municipal court instead of a state charge handled by state court. Before the new ordinance was adopted, the municipal court handled only cases involving first-time offenders. All other cases were sent to state court.
Under the marijuana deferral program, the municipal prosecutor’s office defers prosecution of first-offense marijuana cases. If the person who is ticketed stays out of legal trouble for a year after he or she is ticketed, the charge will never be filed.
“It’s like a freebie,” City Prosecutor Rose Wibbenmeyer said. “It’s like it doesn’t exist, but I reserve the right to file within the statute of limitations, which is a year.”
More than 200 defendants have been put on the deferral list and been kept out of the courtroom since November.
Columbia lawyer Dan Viets, who campaigned for the ordinance, said he is happy with the way the city is handling the cases. He said the deferral program is consistent with the language of the ordinance.
It could be considered the equivalent of unsupervised probation, Viets said.
“It leaves the defendant on notice,” Viets said. “It’s not a freebie. It’s not as if there are no consequences. It’s exactly what is appropriate and reasonable.”
Wibbenmeyer said that when her office receives a ticket for marijuana possession, the person’s name is added to a spreadsheet that has been kept since Election Day. The ticket is filed.
The ticket stays in the file for a year unless the person is caught violating any laws other than minor traffic offenses. If the person violates another law during the deferral period, city prosecutors may decide to file the original charge.
One reason Viets pushed for the law was so someone would not lose educational or employment opportunities because of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction, he said.
But Wibbenmeyer said deferring prosecution for first-time violators makes her a little uneasy.
“The whole idea is kind of strange to me,” she said. “Under the new ordinance, marijuana is the lowest law enforcement priority — lower than parking tickets. We have trials for parking tickets. We make people pay for parking tickets.”
The seconds time a person is ticketed for marijuana possession, whether during or after the one-year deferral period, the person will be charged, Wibbenmeyer said.
If someone is convicted, the court has many sentencing options outlined by the ordinance, including assigning community service, drug treatment programs and a fine of up to $250.
The only glitch created by the new program so far is that it has complicated a storage problem for the police department. The evidence for deferred cases has to be kept for the entire year in case the person ticketed violates the terms of the deferral and the charge is filed.
Police Capt. Tom Dresner said the evidence from misdemeanor marijuana cases is being stored at an off-site storage unit to make room for evidence from other cases. Room in the Evidence Storage Unit has always been limited, he said.
In November, when city prosecutors purge the first tickets for deferred cases, they will also have to get court orders to destroy the evidence for those cases.
“We’re going to have a huge amount to deal with in November,” Wibbenmeyer said. “I’m sure it’s going to hit in a big way.”
— Missourian reporter Ben Welsh contributed to this report.