New data from the Miami-Dade Police Department confirms the conclusions of a recent New Times investigation showing that thousands of South Floridians are needlessly arrested and saddled with criminal records for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The strategy is employed in a racially biased fashion and wastes tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
County officers have handed out more than 10,000 civil citations for possession of less than 20 grams of pot in the past three years, the data shows. Of the 10,078 total citations issued between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2018, 72 percent — or 7,268 — were given to white people. Twenty-eight percent — or 2,789 — were given to black people. The remaining 21 citations were issued to Asian people or those of unknown or uncategorized origin. The department does not include Hispanic or Latino as a category, only white, black, Asian, or unknown.
"The civil citation data shows the same disturbing racial bias among the issuance of citations that exists among Miami Dade arrests, criminal charges, and sentences," says Raymer Maguire, manager of the ACLU of Florida's Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform.
On June 30, 2015, Miami-Dade commissioners passed an ordinance allowing the police department to hand out civil citations in lieu of arrest for seven minor misdemeanors, including possession of less than 20 grams of pot.
In the past three years, Miami-area police departments have sent more than 5,000 people to jail for possession of small amounts of pot, booking data from the department of corrections shows. Those 5,000-plus people would have been eligible for a ticket under the parameters of the 2015 ordinance.
Though the data does not include the arresting agency (Miami Police, Miami-Dade Police, or Miami Beach Police, for example) or demographic data on those arrested, a review of random sample of 50 cases shows that most people arrested for possession of small amounts of pot are people of color: 40 out of 50 of those arrested were black.
Statewide, a disproportionate number of black people are arrested for minor pot charges. In 2017, 42,153 people were arrested in Florida on misdemeanor pot charges, about 6 percent more than the previous year. Almost half of those charged were black people even though they account for only about 17 percent of Florida's population, according to state data shared by the ACLU. That means black people are almost four times likelier to be arrested for pot than white people.
The ACLU's Maguire points out the data confirms his organization's recently released report, "Unequal Treatment," which shows that black people make up 46 percent of all arrests in Miami-Dade. He also notes black Floridians use marijuana at rates nearly identical to other races. "Many factors contribute to these disparities, but one of the biggest is the over-policing that occurs in historically black neighborhoods such as Liberty City and Overtown. Florida needs to decriminalize or legalize marijuana and pass comprehensive criminal justice reforms."
Asked about the racial disparity, MDPD public information officer Lee Cowart responded that more research is needed. "There are other factors as well that go into the decision of whether to issue a civil citation for marijuana," he said. "It's a lot more complicated."
A 2015 memo from former Miami-Dade Police Chief J.D. Patterson obtained through a records request details how the citation policy is supposed to be applied. People caught committing any of the seven citable offenses are not eligible to receive a ticket if they are also charged with a felony, a DUI, a violent crime, or domestic violence.
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Patterson encouraged his officers to arrest people for marijuana offenses when the person was smoking pot in public or while driving a vehicle, and when the pot was "packaged in a manner indicative of street-level drug sales," the memo states.
Though the 2015 ordinance, sponsored by Commissioner Sally Heyman, gave police departments the option to create civil citation programs, it did not require it. So far, 23 Miami-Dade police departments have agreed to begin issuing civil citations.
But some of the cities whose populations could benefit most from citations have yet to sign on, Heyman says.
"We have areas like Homestead that still haven't done anything except give us a bunch of reasons why not," Heyman says. "Cities like Opa-locka and Florida City that have a large African-American populations still haven't come onboard. Our officers in that jurisdiction have no option but to arrest them."