People found with small amounts of marijuana by police in Baton Rouge soon could avoid arrest and jail if local government officials approve a proposed ordinance.
Loosening marijuana penalties has become increasingly popular in cities across the country over the past few years. The New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance in 2016 that allows fines only for marijuana offenses rather than jail time. In 2015, the Louisiana Legislature softened the penalties associated with marijuana possession in state court, including reducing second-offense convictions to a misdemeanor.
The proposed ordinance change in East Baton Rouge Parish would prevent law enforcement officers from taking someone in possession of a small amount of marijuana into custody. Instead, those found with marijuana would be required to either give their driver's license to the arresting officer or provide a written promise to appear in court.
"I don't think we should spend police resources on this," said East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe, who is sponsoring the ordinance change, adding he would rather see police spend their time on other crimes.
But unlike in New Orleans, Loupe's proposal keeps the potential jail time for defendants once the case gets before a judge. Police in New Orleans can choose whether to issue a summons for municipal court, where the punishment will be a fine only for pot possession, or arrest someone and book them on state charges.
Baton Rouge police say they use summonses and pursue misdemeanor cases in City Court when appropriate.
Spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely said the Baton Rouge Police Department usually gives someone a misdemeanor city charge if they have a small amount of marijuana, like a few grams. But if they have any evidence the person has an intent to distribute, either because they are found with a large amount of marijuana or scales, baggies and other evidence of distribution, then the officer will book the offender on a state felony charge like possession with the intent to distribute, McKneely said.
City Prosecutor Anderson Dotson said any felony charge for marijuana must go to the 19th Judicial District Court rather than City Court.
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Under Loupe's proposed ordinance, the penalties for those who go to City Court remain the same and match state law. Those convicted with 14 grams of marijuana or less can face up to $300 fines, 15 days of jail time or both. Those with more than 14 grams can face $500 fines, six months of jail time or both. And people who have any amount of synthetic cannabis could face $500 fines, six months of jail time or both as well. The ordinance does not outline any specific differences for second or third offenses.
Loupe has proposed adding a provision, though, that prevents judges from using past marijuana convictions "as a predicate conviction for enhancement purposes," meaning past marijuana convictions cannot tack jail time onto someone's sentence.
Loupe's ordinance also could make it harder for police to search people's vehicles for marijuana. The ordinance includes a section that says if an officer sees remnants of marijuana in ashtrays, cupholders and other vehicle compartments, that alone is not enough probable cause for an officer to search a vehicle.
Police Department spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola said the department does not have a position on Loupe's ordinance, noting that officers already sometimes give summonses instead of arresting people.
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"If a summons is able to be issued, then that's being done," Coppola said. "It's just, going back to the situation, there may be something greater than just the marijuana where further action needs to be taken."
Dotson, the city prosecutor, said his office does not take positions on policy matters and that he did not have a comment on the proposal. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he only receives state charges, so his office would not be affected by the change to the city ordinance.
Baton Rouge government also could change the penalties for employees who fail drug tests after using marijuana.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks is expecting to introduce an ordinance Jan. 24 that cuts down the time frame for when the city-parish could rehire someone who was fired or who did not pass a pre-employment drug test after using marijuana. Those people currently have to wait three years before applying again to work for the city-parish, but Banks is proposing that the wait time be shortened to one year. The Metro Council is not expected to vote on her proposal until next month.
The national climate for marijuana is also again in flux, as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lifted a previous policy earlier this month that kept federal authorities from strictly enforcing federal marijuana laws. Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to make the call on what to do when state law and federal law differ on marijuana.
"They're going backward, and we need to go forward," Loupe said.
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The Metro Council is expected to vote on Loupe's proposal at its meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 24, at City Hall.