Given a nearly 89% noncompliance rate with the city of Sarasota’s cannabis civil citations ordinance, city commissioners at their Nov. 20 meeting approved 4-1, with Erik Arroyo opposed, repeal of the 2019 ordinance and instead funnel possession cases into the state’s adult pre-arrest diversion program.
Since the city adopted the ordinance brought forth by former Commissioner Hagen Brody to keep minor marijuana cases out of the court system, the State Attorney's Office for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court enacted the pre-arrest diversion program, available to qualifying subjects.
Now, rather than issuing a civil citation that permits voluntary compliance of a $100 fine or completing community service, the Sarasota Police Department will refer misdemeanor cannabis possession cases to the State Attorney's Office for follow-up and completion of the program.
The repeal of the ordinance was brought to the commission by Heather Salzman, the administrator of the Independent Police Advisory Panel, which has expressed concerns over the lack of compliance with the city’s civil citation program intended to decriminalize the offense.
“We have issued 427 cannabis citations,” said Capt. Robert Armstrong, who heads SPD’s Patrol Davison. “The noncompliance percentage is 88.75%, so basically most folks are not paying the fine and not doing anything as a result of the program. If it's repealed, we'll continue to use the alternatives and diversion and things where folks are not going to be held criminally responsible.”
Cannabis citations in the city of Sarasota
Community Service Completed
*Through Nov. 8
Those alternatives include referral to APAD. With that alternative available and rampant noncompliance with the civil citation, Armstrong and City Manager Marlon Brown made the case that repealing the ordinance combined with referral to APAD will streamline disposition of cannabis possession cases and ensure compliance short of criminal prosecution.
“I think it makes it more difficult for SPD to administer a program when there are duplicative programs for the same issue,” said Mayor Liz Alpert. “I think it streamlines and makes it a lot simpler for officers to do simple citations. We can always bring (the city’s ordinance) back if there is some change, so I think we should eliminate this at the moment and rely on the APAD program.”
Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson confirmed Alpert’s assertion that, should the APAD program be altered or not yield the desired results, or if it should be eliminated, the city can reinstate its own ordinance.
“Now that we have an alternative, we can really streamline it, roll it into one thing that doesn't get rid of the opportunity for officers to utilize discretion and issue the marijuana civil citation. That would just be handled administratively by the state,” Robinson said. “If there was some legislative change, we could always bring this back and reenact it if they acted in the way that we didn't care for.”
Arroyo’s objection to repealing the ordinance is that what was initially a City Commission directive was not enforced until the law was enacted. The point of the law, he added, wasn’t to make revenue but rather to prevent police from making arrests for minor crimes.
“The decision to repeal the marijuana civil citation ordinance is a step backward for our city,” Arroyo told the Observer. “This program was initiated as a directive from the commission, focusing on reducing unnecessary arrests for minor offenses, not as a revenue generator. Nonpayment of the fine could be due to numerous factors such as socioeconomic status or incarceration and should not be the reason to undo a policy that aims to bring fairness and pragmatism to our justice system.”
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said she was comfortable with the advisory board’s recommendation to repeal the ordinance.
“I attended two of the IPAP meetings, and they really discussed this and asked all kinds of questions and dug into it,” she said. “They really did look very deeply into this, and they do recommend that we take this action. It wasn't a decision that they took lightly or quickly. I feel confident with their recommendation.”
The APAD program doesn’t apply only to cannabis possession and use but also to other minor misdemeanors. Repeal of the city’s ordinance permits cannabis citations to be funneled into the program as well, an option Armstrong said SPD Chief Rex Troche is prepared to mandate immediately.
Commissioner Debbie Trice said the scofflaw practice since the ordinance was passed is a slippery slope that can spread to other criminal activity.
“I think we all on the commission were very disturbed to hear the 88% noncompliance, so since APAD has been successful for other misdemeanors, I think it makes sense for us to just move over and use that program,” said Commissioner Debbie Trice. “And 88% noncompliance sort of sends the message, 'Don't worry about breaking the law. You can get away with it.' And that moves on to other misdemeanors.”
Arroyo said he would prefer to keep such minor offenses out of the State Attorney’s Office.
“It’s more restrictive and less predictable, potentially subjecting our citizens to a system that could change on a whim,” he said. ”We should be striving for more consistent and equitable approaches in our law enforcement, not retracting them."
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.