By Tiara M. Ellis
The Dallas Morning News
TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas — Texas lawmakers thought they could help ease jail overcrowding when they passed legislation allowing police to write tickets for misdemeanor marijuana possession and a few other nonviolent crimes, instead of hauling suspects to the clink.
But the new law, which went into effect Sept. 1, is being used only in Travis County. Prosecutors in Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties never set up a system to process the misdemeanor citations and, they say, they have no plans to do so.
"I think the Legislature was very sensitive to the fact that there are so many jails that are overcrowded," said Terri Moore, Dallas County's first assistant district attorney. "This was a great idea, but it raises a lot more questions that we are not ready to answer."
The new law gives officers the option to arrest, as they have been doing, or write tickets for possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana.
Some supporters of the law say these nonviolent offenders could be treated the same as drivers who get caught speeding and agree to go before a judge.
But critics say these class A and B misdemeanors, although not violent crimes, could still result in jail time and require investigators to build a solid case for prosecution. As a result, the burden of making sure that suspects make it to court and no one is misidentified is higher.
For Greg Davis, Collin County's first assistant district attorney, one of his qualms with the new law is the perception created by ticketing for a drug offense, instead of making an arrest.
"It may ... lead some people to believe that drug use is no more serious than double parking," Mr. Davis said. "We don't want to send that message to potential drug users, particularly young people."
For Ms. Moore, writing citations for marijuana possession also raises questions about prosecuting those cases.
How do officers prove that the person ticketed is the same one who shows up for court? Digital cameras or fingerprinting could be used, but that would be more equipment for officers, Ms. Moore said.
In addition to helping with jail crowding, the law in theory helps keep officers on the streets instead of making runs to the jail for nonviolent offenses.
In Dallas, jail overcrowding is a daily discussion, said Ron Stretcher, the county's director of criminal justice. The Dallas County Jail has a history of being understaffed and overcrowded, which has led in part to repeated failed state inspections.
As a result of the cramped jail conditions, county officials hold monthly meetings to discuss the jail population and possible solutions, including the idea of ticketing for some misdemeanor offenses. But they believe more research is necessary.
Mr. Stretcher said that just because Dallas County is not currently applying the new law does not mean that officials never would. But deciding whether to implement the edict is not simply based on county officials' desire to ease jail overcrowding.
"These are not just tickets. These are crimes that need to be appropriately dealt with," Mr. Stretcher said. "We want to make sure we get them back to court to stand trial. We want to make sure we don't miss folks who might have prior bad acts."
"It's not about emptying the jail. It's about making sure that we have room in the jail for the people who need to be there," he said.
Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, who authored the legislation, said it's likely that some counties are taking a wait-and-see approach, looking for someone to lead the way.
The Travis County Sheriff's Department is the only law enforcement agency in the state known to be using the new law. The Travis County Sheriff's Department lobbied for it, in part, because of their problem with jail overcrowding. But it's also a way to work more efficiently, said Roger Wade, the sheriff's spokesman.
"We understand that there are times when it's just easier for everybody involved" to ticket, Mr. Wade said. "You still have that arrest stat. You still have the court date. It just saves time and resources [not] bringing someone all the way down to the jail."
Mr. Wade said officers there began writing citations for misdemeanor marijuana possession and other approved misdemeanors on Dec.1 and have encountered no problems. But he said it's too soon to determine how often officers are ticketing vs. arresting for these misdemeanor offenses.
Unlike Dallas County, Travis County already had a direct filing system in place that made it possible to quickly implement the new law. When someone is arrested, the case is automatically assigned to a prosecutor and paperwork is filed with the county or district clerk's office, Mr. Wade said.
With the high price of gasoline, Mr. Wade said, writing citations also saves money because officers don't have to drive into Austin from the county's outskirts to put a suspect in jail.
"There are folks that think we are being soft on crime because we are just giving tickets," Mr. Wade said. "We are still hard on crime. We believe if we can save resources and have the same affect on crime, then we should take advantage of this."
THE NEW LAW
The law: It gives police officers the discretion to arrest a suspect - as they have been doing - or write citations for a series of class A and B misdemeanors for possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana.
Other applications: Other misdemeanors for which officers can now write tickets include driving with an invalid license, criminal mischief, creating graffiti and theft, as long as the damage costs for each incident is less than $500.
Possible punishment: A class A misdemeanor can result in up to one year in jail and fines of up to $4,000. A class B misdemeanor can result in up to 180 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.
Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News
Marijuana ticket law only catching on near Austin, Texas