Wednesday, October 19, 2016


New data proves what many of us who are plugged into the criminal justice system in Tampa Bay have long suspected, Pinellas County has more drug arrests per 100,000 people than most other counties in Florida. This is especially disheartening when you consider that Florida itself has more drug arrests than other parts of the country. 

Contrary to the response from the Pinellas County Sheriff most of these arrests are not felonies. Nor are most of these arrests having anything to do with oxycodone, synthetic drugs, opiates, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin or doctor shopping or forged prescriptions. No, most of these arrests involve small amounts of misdemeanor marijuana possession which is not even a crime in more civilized portions of America. Nor does our Sheriff want to decriminalize pot possession. Instead he still wants to make his arrests but allow citizens to go thru a burdensome process to have charges dismissed. It begs the question as to why small quantities of drugs ares still a high priority in Florida investigations and arrests.

Why here? Police budgets are firmly based on the number of arrests made. What's a few ruined lives compared to hiring more officers who then harass more citizens with needless arrests? Officers are taught to think first about finding and seizing drugs. Officers are promoted based on how many arrests they've made. To further their careers officer's misuse their power, even to the point of dishonestly claiming to smell marijuana to avoid the process of having a judge review a proper search warrant by using the laws of search and seizure to make invalid, unjustifiable drug arrests. The process of actively seeking drugs in vehicles demeans not only the officer but his uniform and the reputation the entire police department.

Why not instead promote officers based on how many people they help each day? That officer who risks her life to protect the elderly passenger in a stalled vehicle on U.S. 19 should earn much more respect than the officer who stops a car merely because the driver isn't wearing a seatbelt and uses that as a pretext to begin a drug investigation.

And don't think I'm making this up. In a recent marijuana possession case that I handled, my client was stopped for not wearing a seatbelt at nine in the morning on the way to work. The officer later said that he stopped my client because as he pulled up beside his car at a red light, my client looked away in a suspicious manner. The officer initiated a stop, pulling him over on his whim of hope for a nice arrest and immediately began a drug investigation, finding one bud of marijuana in my client's car. 

Did the officer stop to think that arresting someone is not the same as going fishing? Did it ever occur to him that people's lives really do matter and that pulling someone over for something as petty as a seatbelt infraction in hopes of making a drug arrest is a significant intrusion into that person's life. There was no allegation of being impaired nor any evidence of recent marijuana use.

 My client would have lost his job and likely been unemployed for awhile if he was convicted of the crime. He, his minor child and his wife would have lost their home and been reduced to living on welfare. Yet an officer decided to shake things up, do a little exploring and possibly ruin a few lives. Why?

Let's work to teach officers to simply look to first always help people. If you pull someone over for a seatbelt violation just casually tell the driver to buckle-up for safety. What we don't need are more overzealous police who start every encounter with a private citizen with the goal of making an arrest. Why not strive for loftier goals of helping our fellow citizens rather than needlessly turning them into criminals.

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