Seventeen months after the City of Miami signed an agreement allowing police officers to hand out civil citations instead of arresting people for certain minor misdemeanors — including possessing small amounts of marijuana — Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina says his officers will finally begin doing so by the end of this month.
The delay led to hundreds of arrests for getting caught with a few grams of weed and other minor charges, such as illegally possessing a milk crate, a charge used almost exclusively against homeless people.
Neither the mayor's office nor former Miami Police Chief Rudy Llanes responded to requests for comment regarding the delay. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who pushed for the city to begin a civil citation program, says he was surprised when he recently learned the police department had never followed through on the legislation he helped pass.
"I had assumed that it had been enacted — I was looking forward to a report on how the first year had gone," Russell tells New Times. "We never received any pushback. As far as I knew, it was being implemented. It was very surprising to hear that it had not been."
Colina says he cannot account for why Llanes didn't get the civil-citation program up and running before retiring earlier this year. After Colina became chief at the end of this past January, he says, it took months to properly train officers how to work under the new rules.
"We had to establish open an account with Miami-Dade County, had to order the books for the citation, which we are now receiving, write policy, train officers, and create radio signal for the actual violation," Colina says. "What I'm being told is we should be ready to go at the latest by the end of the month."
In June 2015, Miami-Dade County passed an ordinance allowing police officers to issue civil citations for certain minor misdemeanors, including possessing small amounts of marijuana. The idea behind the bill, sponsored by Commissioner Sally Heyman, was to free up police resources and taxpayer dollars while also preventing more residents, particularly young people, from racking up arrest records for small violations.
But cities had to sign agreements before their police departments could begin using the citation program.
The City of Miami signed that agreement in February 2017, though commissioners agreed to exclude two crimes — loitering or prowling and trespassing — from the list of offenses that could result in tickets instead of arrests. When the agreement was signed, then-Chief Rudy Llanes expressed support for issuing tickets and fines for minor misdemeanors rather than arresting everyone.
"Sitting on a milk crate and you get a citation, I'm good with that. The other, possession of the cannabis, I have no problem with," Llanes said.
But in the 17 months since then, more than 2,800 people have been arrested in Miami-Dade County for the five offenses for which City of Miami Police said they would issue citations, according to booking data from the Dade County Corrections Department.
Those 2,800 people would have been eligible for civil citations under the 2015 ordinance, though not all 2,800 people were arrested by City of Miami cops. (The county's data does not show the arresting agency in each case.)
Of those arrests, 84 percent were for possession of less than 20 grams of pot. As a New Times investigation showed last month, those arrests have disproportionately targeted minorities.
By the end of this month, Colina says, Miami Police officers will be able to issue citations in lieu of arrest for these five offenses: littering, illegal use of a dairy crate, possession of a stolen shopping cart, possession of less than 20 grams of pot, and possession of drug paraphernalia (such as a grinder or bowl).
"We're starting small, and then we'll grow it depending on how it goes," Colina says. The department decided not to include loitering or prowling and trespassing on the list of citable offenses because officials are concerned those could be precursors to more serious crimes.
"If they can't explain why they're there and dispel your worry that they're there to commit a crime, it doesn't make sense to write them a ticket. Either don't do anything or arrest them," Colina says.
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Under the city's agreement, Miami Police officers may still give tickets to people who are caught smoking pot in public, Colina says.
"Some of the questions we get from our officers is, 'What are you supposed to do if someone is smoking pot at a park where kids are playing?'" Colina says. "We're going to leave that up to the officers' discretion depending on the circumstances, but there aren't a lot of circumstances where a person out smoking in public will get a chance. It has to be within reason."
Both Colina and Russell agree the plan should help residents avoid amassing unnecessary arrest records. "We don't want to limit somebody's opportunities," the chief says.
Russell adds, "We do not need to fill our jails with folks who committed such a minor offense that it's creating a burden on the system and creating a negative path for them. The civil-citation process is a really great way to create a warning system but not sending them down a path of criminality."