IL: Marijuana Decriminalization Brings Local Challenges


The state aims to save money on jail time and court costs with a new law that removes criminal penalties for being in possession of small amounts of marijuana, but local law enforcement and prosecutors are facing challenges in executing the changes.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 2228 on July 29, making possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana a civil offense. A ticket is written and a fine assessed that can range between $100 and $200. Before the law change, which took effect immediately, the offense could have resulted in a misdemeanor charge that brought a fine of up to $1,500 and up to 6 months of jail time.

Another notable change with the civil penalty is that the offense will now be expunged from an offender’s record 6 months after the bill’s effective date.

Illinois becomes the 21st state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Four years ago, Chicago instituted a city ordinance to go the civil route. Lawmakers in Springfield had talked about doing the same thing for several years, but the actual bill picked up steam in a hurry.

“It seems this bill was pushed ahead by the Legislature without much warning, and there wasn’t time for us to respond,” Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce said. “There are a lot of challenges the law has put on us.”

For law enforcement, the situation is easier for departments that have ordinances on the books for the offenses. Some cities, including Dixon, Amboy and Rock Falls, have those ordinances. Cities are not mandated to change the ordinance, but many are tweaking them to mirror the changes in state statute.

Law enforcement has been figuring out things as they go, and police departments with city ordinances can write the offenses up as ordinance violations.

“It is easier with the ordinances, but the State Police are using uniform traffic citations to write these up,” Joyce said. “That can make it hard for our office to determine things like probable cause and gram weight.”

The county sheriff’s departments are working with the prosecutors to develop ordinances, but until they are approved, violations will be handled with the uniform citations that show it as a civil offense that requires a court appearance.

The law left the issue of pending cases to the discretion of each state’s attorney. Whiteside County has decided to treat everyone the same who has been cited for possession of less than 10 grams.

“We felt there was no incentive or purpose to treat people differently who were cited before the law changed – it just didn’t seem fair,” Joyce said.

Neither Joyce nor Lee County State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller think the law will noticeably reduce court time. While there could be some benefits down the road, it will take some time to work through the rough spots – time not afforded by the state.

“The way the law is written, it could cost us more time and money,” Sacco-Miller said. “Even though it carries a civil penalty, it’s still an offense, and we have to change the way we do everything.”

Systematic changes and some apparent inconsistencies created by the law’s changes – particularly in the area of driving under the influence – must also be addressed. The DUI portion eliminates the possibility of getting a conviction based on metabolized forms of THC when a driver is not deemed impaired.

For example, medical marijuana users must submit to field sobriety tests if officers suspect they are driving while impaired, but unregistered users are not penalized for refusing a sobriety test.

“The civil citations are being written on traffic tickets, and they are going to the circuit clerk’s office, which has created some confusion,” Sacco-Miller said.

As the civil offenses work their way through the system, they are given a miscellaneous remedy tag, in part because a court appearance is mandated and a judge must set the amount of the fine.

Prosecutors say the new law has the potential to help with workload, but it’s too soon to make that determination.

“It’s going to take some time to figure it out and get everyone on the same page,” Sacco-Miller said.

Lee County Sheriff John Simonton said the law won’t bring drastic changes for law enforcement. He said it wouldn’t impact the local jail population, but the civil process could speed things up for officers.

“It will actually expedite an arrest situation, in that we will not have to bring the offender to jail for processing,” Simonton said. “Issuance of the civil offense citation and bonding will take place at the scene of the offense.”

Simonton said his office will work with the state’s attorney’s office to track expungements. Evidence testing and storage procedures won’t change.

Law enforcement officials in Whiteside County agreed that the impact will be negligible for them.

“We haven’t legalized marijuana, so we’re not changing any of the enforcement tactics,” Sheriff’s Department Lt. John Booker said. “The prosecution end of it is where it’s different, but I think it will eventually save time for police.”

In Rock Falls, the updated version of its city ordinance was given a first read at the Aug. 16 council meeting. Chief Tammy Nelson of the Rock Falls Police Department said the impact of the law should be minimal.

“In the past, officers had the option of writing a ticket anyway, and for under 10 grams, that’s what they were usually getting,” Nelson said.

Repeat offenders ran the risk of jail time, but first-timers usually just came away with a fine unless multiple charges were involved.

“We had an ordinance, and most were being given a city ordinance ticket to keep it out of the courts system,” Nelson said.

Nelson said momentum for the law change had been building for a while, and she had anticipated legislative action.

“For us, it was just a matter of tweaking the ordinance language so it mimics the state law,” Nelson said.

The final version of the Rock Falls ordinance should be ready for a vote at the Sept. 6 council meeting.

State savings potential

• The cost of housing a prisoner for a year in Illinois is nearly $40,000.

• About 9,000 state prisoners are there for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

• Enforcement of the law for possession of small amounts of marijuana laws costs an estimated $127 million for law enforcement, and $72 million in court costs each year.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Marijuana Decriminalization Brings Local Challenges
Author: Pam Eggemeier
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