This summer, Miami’s lead prosecutor announced that they would stop prosecuting minor pot offenses, effectively decriminalizing pot in one of Florida’s largest counties. But although local police have been informed of this decision, new data reveals that people are still getting thrown in jail for simply possessing weed.
On July 1st, Florida joined 42 other states in legalizing hemp, but state prosecutors soon realized that this new law had an unexpected consequence. Legal hemp plants look and smell the same as illegal marijuana plants, and most states’ law enforcement agencies are unable to tell the difference between these two forms of cannabis without resorting to expensive lab tests. As a result, prosecutors in several states, including Texas and Florida, have backed down on prosecuting minor weed crimes for the time being.
Later in July, the Miami-Dade Police Department notified its officers that the odor of cannabis can no longer be considered probable cause to search a vehicle. In August, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle sent a memo to all 35 police departments in the county, explaining that her office would stop prosecuting minor pot possession cases until further notice.
One would expect that this memo would convince cops to devote their resources to more serious crimes, but a new report from the Miami New Times reveals that this is not the case. From July 1st to November 23rd, cops arrested 391 people for misdemeanor pot possession, 141 of whom were arrested after Rundle sent the memo.
For most of these arrests, the pot charges were added to other, primary allegations, but cops still jailed 47 people for weed possession alone. 12 of those 47 were busted for having less than 20 grams of weed. The majority of these arrests occurred in Miami Gardens, Hialeah, and the City of Miami, areas largely populated by communities of color.
It appears that the prosecutor’s message may not have filtered down to the cops on the street. “The State Attorney and the State Attorney’s Office have no legal authority to direct any of Miami-Dade’s 35 police agencies to do anything,” said Ed Griffith, spokesperson for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, to the New Times. “Those that do have the legal authority to direct a municipal police department to do something are the municipal governments that oversee the departments.”
Carlos Martinez, Miami-Dade’s chief public defender, warned police that failing to heed Rundle’s memo could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits. “Individuals should not be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession because the prosecutor’s office has stated they will not be prosecuting,” he told the New Times. “I imagine that, if an arrested individual sues, it could be costly for the departments who are arresting on charges that will not hold up in court.”
Most of the misdemeanor weed charges filed after Rundle released her memo were dismissed. Even so, each of these people was still dragged to jail and forced to seek legal representation. These minor drug charges — even if they’re non-prosecutable — also leave people with permanent criminal records, and can get immigrants or tourists deported, even if no charges are filed.
Not only do these non-prosecutable arrests threaten the lives and well-being of those who are arrested, they waste valuable police time and resources. Miami-Dade police were only able to solve 16.8 percent of all crimes reported last year, the lowest rate in all of Florida. Putting an end to minor weed arrests, especially when they won’t even be prosecuted, could free up enough police time to allow cops to focus on actual, serious crimes.