One Seattle Police Officer Responsible for Eighty Percent of All Marijuana Tickets for the First Half of 2014; Municipal Court Drops All of the Cases

Space_Needle002.jpgWashington state is one of only a few U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Public use is still prohibited, but possession by adults of certain marijuana products is no longer illegal under state law. Enforcement of the new law has apparently been controversial for one Seattle police officer, who wrote 80 percent of the tickets issued in the city for public marijuana use during the first six months of 2014. In September, the City Attorney and the Chief of Police sought to dismiss all of the cases originating during that time period, stating that he believes the officer was motivated by opposition to the new law.

Washington voters approved Initiative 502 (I-502) on Election Day 2012 by about 56 to 44 percent. The measure made possession and private use of small amounts of marijuana legal for adults 21 years of age and older. Public use is a class 3 civil infraction rather than a criminal offense. WA Rev. Code § 69.50.445. Marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. WA Rev. Code § 69.50.101(d), 21 C.F.R. § 1308.11(g). Federal authorities may still enforce federal drug law in Washington under the doctrine of dual sovereignty, as the U.S. Supreme Court held with regard to California’s medical marijuana statute in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).

Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 by a similar margin on the same day as voters in Washington. On Election Day 2014, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia joined these two states in legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Voters in Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean, approved a measure legalizing marijuana for medical use, while voters in Florida rejected a similar measure.

In July 2014, Seattle police officials reassigned an officer who had single-handedly issued 66 of the 83 tickets for public marijuana use during the first half of the year. The officer, a 24-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, was critical of the new marijuana law, describing it as “silly” on one ticket. He reportedly used a coin toss in another instance to decide whom to cite. On several tickets, he added notations referring to “Petey Holmes.” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes was a vocal supporter of I-502. The department suspended the officer during an investigation, but he was back on the job in August.

Holmes had to issue an apology earlier in July when, allegedly accidentally, he brought two unopened bags of marijuana to his office, which was designated a “drug-free workplace” by the city. His office issued a statement shortly after the news of the overzealous officer became public, expressing concern about “disproportionate enforcement” of the ban on public use. At a City Council meeting in September, he stated his intention to seek the dismissal of about 100 citations, each of which would result in a $27 fine. This request covered all of the tickets issued in the city through the end of July 2014, not just those issued by the one officer. A municipal court judge granted Holmes’ request and dismissed all of the cases on September 24, 2014.

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Federal Judge Grants Default Judgment in Forfeiture Action for Money that Allegedly Smelled Like Marijuana, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, September 23, 2014

Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2014
Photo credit: By Rattlhed at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.