On April 25, 2017, North Miami signed an agreement to begin issuing civil citations to people caught with small amounts of marijuana. But it took the city's police force seven months to adopt the program — and then continued arresting people for tiny amounts of pot anyway.
In fact, since signing on to the program, North Miami cops made 214 arrests of people with less than 20 grams of marijuana. The city is just the latest in Miami-Dade County to ignore a legislative push to arrest fewer people for weed possession, as well as a handful of other minor offenses covered by a 2015 county ordinance. Since the ordinance passed in June 2015, North Miami PD has made 549 arrests.
"The North Miami Police Department has virtually ignored the option [to issue civil citations] and continued to make arrests," says Raymer Maguire, manager of the ACLU of Florida's Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.
NMPD says that since it finally began following the program in mid-January, its officers have handed out 32 citations for possession of minor amounts of pot. Chief Larry Juriga blamed logistical and training holdups for the months of delay in adopting the program.
"We needed to get the citations themselves," Juriga says, referring to the booklets that officers needed to obtain from the county to issue uniform citations. "We needed to get our procedures lined up and train our officers. We didn't want to put it out there without everybody being aware of what was going on."
In 2015, county commissioners passed a law allowing police officers to give out civil citations for a range of minor offenses, including small amounts of weed, but a New Times investigation found that arrests for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana actually increased every year since the law was passed, with more than 6,000 people sent to jail for the offense in the past three years.
One possible reason for that increase: Many cities in Miami-Dade County waited months to locally approve the change, and then — even with the policy in place — many cops continued to arrest people because the law gives them the option of choosing whether to issue citations.
In the 17 months since City of Miami commissioners signed on to the plan, for instance, Miami Police Department officers still have not handed out a single citation.
MPD Chief Jorge Colina now says that his officers will begin issuing citations by the end of September and that he has removed officer discretion from the policy in an attempt to mitigate any racial disparity in the way citations have been handed out so far. Colina said via Twitter that his officers will be required to give a ticket for the first two minor marijuana possession offenses, but New Times has yet to receive that policy directive in writing.
Activists say they want North Miami to adopt a similar policy.
"At a bare minimum, the ACLU of Florida urges North Miami Police Department to follow the lead of the Miami Police Department by ordering officers to issue citations the first and second times a person is caught with small amounts of marijuana," Maguire says. "Continuing to make arrests goes against the will of Miami Dade residents and elected officials and does a disservice to all residents."
The Miami Beach Police Department, meanwhile, has given out only 42 citations for pot in the past three years.
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Chief Juriga says North Miami's policy will differ only slightly from the county's citation program, which includes seven minor misdemeanors among the list of citable offenses. Like Miami, North Miami does not encourage its officers to issue citations for loitering or prowling and trespassing.
Asked whether his officers would be required to arrest individuals caught smoking in public (because the county's policy says it encourages officers to arrest individuals smoking pot rather than simply possessing it), Juriga says he will leave the decision up to the officers in that particular situation.
The chief also says that just because someone has been arrested for a minor crime before, it doesn't mean his officers will automatically arrest that person for one of the citable offenses this time around.
Still, North Miami's own citation and arrest data seems to tell a different story: one that says if you get caught with a small amount of weed in North Miami, you are far likelier to be arrested than to receive a ticket.