MIAMI (CBSMiami) — On a recent morning, County Court Judge Samuel Slom moved through his docket, calling one defendant after another with speed and efficiency.
“You are charged with the offense of possession of marijuana,” he told one young man.
Forty-one seconds later he called another defendant up to the bench, “You are charged with possession of marijuana.”
A minute later another: “You were charged with possession of marijuana. Let’s find out what the prosecutor’s offer is.”
Out of the 220 cases heard in the three and a half hour court session, half were for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. In his chambers afterwards, Judge Slom, who has been a Miami Dade judge since 1996, said it is typical for marijuana cases to dominate his calendar.
“If the taxpayers only knew the impact these cases had on their pocketbook, they would be, I think, surprised,” he said.
As part of our ongoing series, Race Matters: Policing by the Numbers, CBS4 News has now gathered and analyzed the details surrounding every misdemeanor marijuana arrest, made by every police agency in Miami Dade County, for the last five years. We reviewed nearly 60,000 cases, sorting them by race, outcome, and impact on the court system.
Among our latest findings:
- In the past five years, more than 44,000 people were arrested in Miami Dade County on the sole charge of possessing a small amount of marijuana, often nothing more than part of a marijuana cigarette.
- Misdemeanor marijuana arrests accounted for ten percent of all the cases filed in the court system between 2010 and 2014. In the last two years, it was at least one out of every nine people arrested – and that includes people arrested for either a felony or a misdemeanor.
- The Miami Dade Police Department is responsible for filling the court system with marijuana cases, accounting for 61 percent of the cases filed over the last five years.
- An examination of the 44,860 closed cases between 2010 and 2014 shows a sharp racial disparity. Although Miami Dade County is less than 20 percent black, 55 percent of the cases had black defendants.
CBS4 News also examined the outcome of the marijuana cases as they made their way through the court system. We found:
- Just two percent of 44,860 marijuana cases closed between 2010 and 2014 resulted in a conviction.
- Forty-nine percent were either dismissed or dropped by prosecutors, often after forcing the defendant to attend a series of classes that cost $300.
- The remaining 49 percent were settled with what is known as a withhold of adjudication, which is an admission of guilt, but not a formal conviction. (A withhold of adjudication remains on a person’s record forever and can hurt their ability to find work and housing. It can keep a person from being able to enlist in the military, receive student loans, or become a citizen.)
- While blacks are disproportionately arrested on the street for misdemeanor marijuana possession, they face an equally difficult challenge in the courtroom. Although blacks made up 55 percent of the defendants during that five year period – 74 percent of the people convicted for marijuana possession were black. And 65 percent of those who received a withhold of adjudication were black.
- At the same time, you were more likely to have your case dropped or dismissed if you were white than if you were black. Among those who had their cases dropped or dismissed 56 percent were white while only 44 percent were black.
Judge Slom and other judges are supporting a measure they hope will curtail the number of marijuana cases entering the criminal justice system. They would like to give police the option of issuing a $100 ticket rather than arresting someone for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The civil citation ordinance, sponsored by County Commissioner Sally Heyman, will be considered Tuesday.
“I don’t view marijuana possession as the most serious of offenses, but I look at the impact that it has not just on the defendants but on the taxpayers,” Judge Slom said. “When someone is arrested for a simple possession of marijuana case, the officer often transports them to jail, now you have taken the officer off their beat. Once they are booked into jail who do you think pays for their medical care, their dental care, if any is needed, their room and board? That also lands on the taxpayers shoulders.
“The officer is often subpoenaed for depositions, subpoenaed for trials, subpoenaed for motions,” Slom continues. “So if the officer is on duty it takes them off their beat; if the officer is off duty the taxpayers are now paying for that overtime salary. If a defendant chooses to go to trial, who pays for that? The taxpayers as well.”
Slom, however, was reluctant to criticize police for making the arrests.
“Well, I guess that is up to law enforcement and society to decide how best to use its resources,” he said. “I can say, based on a judicial perspective, we do question the prudence of using this vast amount of resources for a simple case of marijuana possession.”
Others were more blunt in their assessment.
“What you have documented is that black people are arrested more, are put through the criminal justice system more, and are convicted more, for an offense which white people commit at the same rate that black people commit,” said Howard Simon, executive director for the ACLU of Florida. “I think all of that – what the police policies are, what our money is being spent on, the race implications of that – all of that has got to go before our county commission. And we’ve got to figure out how to change the priorities of the Miami Dade Police Department.”
As part of the review of the 44,860 closed cases, CBS4 News examined them based on the arresting police agency.
During the five years between 2010 and 2014, the Miami Dade Police Department accounted for 61 percent (27,480) of the cases.
Miami Beach was second with nine percent (3,996), Miami was third with 8.4 percent (3,770), Miami Gardens was fourth with 4.5 percent (2,008), and Hialeah was fifth with 3.7 percent (1,670).
“When 61 percent of all the marijuana arrests in the county are by the county police, when the county police only polices 40 percent of the population in Miami Dade County, it indicates really screwed up priorities by the county police department,” said Simon, from the ACLU.
In May, CBS4’s initial Race Matters series focused on the work of a six-man, Miami Dade Crime Suppression Team operating in southern end of the county. We discovered the majority of their arrests involved young African Americans for relatively minor offenses, most notably pot possession.
At the time, Miami Dade Police Director JD Patterson was critical of the stories, noting CBS4 examined only 245 marijuana arrests made by the Crime Suppression Team. Patterson publicly told a group of county commissioners: “When you take five or six officers in the statistical report that was demonstrated and you put it out the way it was put out, you would get the impression that that’s a real serious race issue that’s going on in our community.”
For this latest round of stories, CBS4 News reviewed all 27,480 misdemeanor marijuana cases made by the Miami Dade Police Department in the last five years. The results of that review showed the racial disparities found in the south end of the county are occurring throughout the department.
In the last five years, 58.4 percent of the defendants arrested by the Miami Dade Police Department for misdemeanor marijuana possession were black.
Patterson and others in his department have argued police officers are not targeting blacks, they are merely making stops and arrests in neighborhoods with a high crime rate. And those neighborhoods just happen to be predominantly black.
Donald Jones, a constitutional and civil rights law professor at the University of Miami, said that may have been the initial intent of the police, but what has happened over time is that officers begin looking at everyone in those neighborhoods as a suspect and begin treating them differently as well.
“It says to me that we’re profiling,” Jones said. “We’ve gotten to a point where we criminalize whole communities. We see certain communities as being communities of criminals and we police them that way.”
Jones said it can have a chilling effect on the relationship between the police and the community. “It creates an atmosphere as if this is a different America,” he said.
The issue of over-policing black neighborhoods is one of the reasons why blacks fair so poorly in court. The prosecutor will often dictate the outcome of a case based on a defendants previous arrest record. If the defendant has been arrested before, they are not likely to receive the same options for having their case dismissed.
By repeatedly arresting people in the same neighborhood you ultimately guarantee a negative outcome in the courts, Jones said. “You end up catching the same fish in the same pool over and over again,” he said.
Ultimately it is a matter of priorities, Jones said. Are there better uses for these officers? Are there greater threats that they should be going after?
The analysis by CBS4 News found that in the last two years, Miami Dade Police made three times as many arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession than they did for drunk driving.
In 2013, for example, Miami Dade police officers arrested 5,421 individuals on the sole charge of possessing marijuana. That same year they made 1,628 DUI arrests.
“We want the communities safer,” said Jones. “Taking marijuana out is not making the communities safer but taking those resources and focusing on the violent crimes would.”
In response to our report, Miami Dade Police Director JD Patterson issued the following statement:
“The Miami-Dade Police Department is a professional law enforcement agency which takes great pride in serving the residents of Miami-Dade County. Keeping our communities safe is our primary goal, and we are responsive to the needs and concerns of our diverse community while upholding our core values of Integrity, Respect, Service and Fairness. As an agency, we prohibit enforcement profiling and provide law enforcement services in a fair and impartial manner. While we have not had an opportunity to thoroughly review the statistics you provided, we have been and will continue our dialogue with the community and all stakeholders regarding this important conversation.”