R.I. police have issued 850 tickets for marijuana possession in first four months of new law

marijuana certificate hemp beach tv hbtvIn the four months since Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, the police have written about 850 tickets for what is now classified as a civil violation — more than 100 to juveniles. The cases, which are being adjudicated at the state’s Traffic Tribunal, have resulted in tens of thousands of fines being assessed; the money is earmarked for state coffers. From April 1 through the end of July, magistrates have levied more than $110,000 in fines on 663 adults and 92 juveniles who have been found to have possessed an ounce or less of non-medical marijuana. However, only about $61,000 has been collected.

Many of the people issued summonses have not paid their fines by mail or come to court, so they are found “guilty in absentia.” Some people who came to court and pleaded guilty or were found guilty after a trial have not paid either.

Traffic Tribunal Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta, a former state prosecutor who for three years headed the attorney general’s narcotics unit, says he is bowled over by the number of people ticketed under the new law –– which does not apply to people authorized, with state-issued cards, to use marijuana for medicinal purposes or to grow marijuana as a medical-marijuana caregiver.

“To see this many cases, I am surprised,” he said in an interview at the court. He said the large number of tickets may be due to the fact that “there’s a certain simplicity to it now.”

The police use the same universal summons form that they use for issuing traffic violations. It tells the person what his or her court date is, “then they come here to get it handled.”

The police don’t have to wait six months for a toxicology test to be done so they can build a criminal case, Guglietta said. “Now we can handle cases within 30 days and we’re done.”

According to figures provided by the state’s judiciary, the largest single source of the marijuana tickets is the state police. Often, Guglietta said, the marijuana is found as a result of a traffic stop for something else. He said he has found that the police are dismissing some of the summonses if a defendant agrees to plead guilty to refusing to take a breath test in connection with suspicion of driving under the influence, or admits guilt to more serious drug charges in the Superior Court.

Police in Providence, Warwick, Cranston and Pawtucket have issued about 28 percent of the tickets.
While the police for the state Department of Environmental Management, which patrols state parks and beaches, issued 21 summonses, the police at the University of Rhode Island aren’t devoting much time to this endeavor. They issued just 3 of the 746 tickets given to adults. The state police have issued 135 tickets.

Guglietta says he has found that most people who are given marijuana tickets are “interested in just getting rid of the case. They’re willing to pay the fine and move on.” About 90 percent of those who appear in his court plead guilty, he says. Only about 10 percent choose trials. The trials, he said, typically last just 30 to 45 minutes. The level of proof is “by clear and convincing evidence” rather than the more stringent “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

If offenders don’t pay the $150 fine as assessed by the court, it increases to $300 after 30 days and to $600 after 90 days. Fines increased in 147 of the 851 cases over the four months because no payment was made within 30 days.

The new law allows for two $150 civil citations within 18 months. A third offense becomes a misdemeanor charge and shifts adjudication to District Court. The sale or cultivation of non-medical marijuana continues to be a criminal offense. Civil cases involving juveniles are handled separately and confidentially, as they are in the Family Court. The public is barred from the Traffic Tribunal courtroom where the minors’ cases are heard; juvenile offenders are required to bring a parent.

According to figures provided by the judiciary, from April 1 through July 31, 746 summonses were issued to adults. Nineteen were dismissed by the court; 21 were dismissed by the police; 415 resulted in guilty pleas or guilty findings at trial; 233 people were “no shows” so were found guilty in absentia; and 15 people pre-paid their fines prior to hearing, admitting the violation. Forty-three cases are pending hearing.
During the same four months, the police issued 105 summonses to juveniles. Eighty-five pleaded guilty or were found guilty at trial; 7 were found guilty in absentia, 1 case was dismissed by the court and 5 by the police. Seven are awaiting hearing.

Juveniles found guilty of this civil infraction must, as mandated by the new law, complete a drug-awareness program and community service. The new law says that 50 percent of the fines collected in civil penalties shall be expended on drug-awareness and treatment programs for youth. But because the new law didn’t take effect until April, no money has been appropriated for these programs. Currently, the juvenile offenders are paying for the mandated drug-awareness programs out of their own pockets. For now, “it’s a pay-as-you-go system,” Guglietta said.

The juveniles can enroll in a court-approved program offered online, through a company called 3{+r}{+d} Millennium, which costs $60, or, starting at the end of August, opt to take the tutorial in person, through the Rhode Island Student Assistance Program. Guglietta said the program currently works in conjunction with the Family Court, offering programs in 28 school systems throughout the state. Guglietta said it plans to open satellite offices to accommodate the juveniles who come through the Traffic Tribunal.
Thirteen juveniles found guilty in the Traffic Tribunal have completed a drug-awareness program online.

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