By Mike Crowley
Following discussion this week, City Council will move forward with a plan to significantly decrease the minimum penalties for crimes involving small amounts of marijuana or items associated with the use of marijuana. Council is expected to vote on first and second readings of the proposed ordinance at its Oct. 6 meeting with the third and final vote possible at its Oct. 20 meeting.
If approved, possession of up to 30 grams, or slightly less than an ounce, of marijuana would still be a crime in the city of Meadville as would possession of drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, rolling papers or other items used to consume marijuana. But in both cases, police officers would have the option of filing summary charges for such offenses under the city’s local ordinances. Currently, the same crimes can only be charged as misdemeanors under the state criminal code.
The change would reduce the financial burden on those found guilty of such charges by hundreds of dollars, interim City Manager Maryann Menanno told council on Wednesday.
Last month, Menanno noted that the $300 fine was on the high end of the range of such fines used by other municipalities that have taken similar steps with regard to petty marijuana crimes. This week, Menanno made the case that the change would nonetheless prove beneficial for both those found guilty of such crimes and the city itself.
Citing a long list of fines, costs and fees taken from what she called “a real-world example,” Menanno told council that a misdemeanor charge for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana adjudicated in the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas would likely end up incurring about $750 in court-assigned costs. In addition to a $250 fine, a defendant found guilty might pay a $120 clerk fee, $100 for substance abuse education and $60 for victim witness service among other costs.
But the expenses for a misdemeanor marijuana offense don’t end there: A person convicted on such a charge would likely hire a lawyer, Menanno added, adding another $500 to $2,000. First-time offenders who enter the court’s accelerated rehabilitative disposition would typically owe another $1,500.
“This is for council’s consideration to compare that,” Menanno said of the costs associated with a misdemeanor conviction, “to the summary offense that this ordinance proposes and a $300 fine.”
In introducing the proposal to council last month, Chief Michael Tautin of Meadville Police Department stressed that the affect on a defendant’s wallet is only part of the impact of a misdemeanor charge. While a summary charge is comparable to a traffic ticket, a misdemeanor conviction carries with it long-lasting effects, such as a potential impact on the offender’s ability to find work or gain access to financial aid for higher education.
“Having that misdemeanor charge on your record can be debilitating. It can be a big deal,” Tautin told council in August. A summary charge “still offers us that deterrent — it’s still illegal, it’s still a drug, but with the fine paid, you don’t have the possible life-changing shackle of a misdemeanor.”
Even with the change, officers would still have the option of charging alleged offenders with a misdemeanor under the state criminal code if circumstances warranted doing so, according to Tautin.
The change would not only mean a reduction in expense for those found guilty, but it also would greatly reduce the time demanded of both offenders and police, according to Tautin. A misdemeanor charge making its way through county criminal court could easily mean multiple court dates for both defendant and the charging officer. In addition, very little of the larger costs assigned in such a case go to the city.
If charged as a summary violation of a local ordinance, “we would get the lion’s share of the fine,” Tautin told council last month.
And the city would see the benefit from that larger share more quickly: Where resolution of a misdemeanor case can take many months, defendants issued a summary citation must respond within 10 days, according to Tautin.
“It saves me time, it saves resources,” Tautin said. “We’re still enforcing the law, but we’re doing it much more expeditiously and officers can take a lot more time dealing with other incidents.”
Councilman Jim Roha on Wednesday pointed out that those who use legally prescribed medical marijuana would not be affected by the change and clarified that the ordinance would apply to the various forms of marijuana.
No council members expressed any objections to the proposed change.
Concluding discussion on the topic, Mayor LeRoy Stearns said, “OK, we’ll move forward on it.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.