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Jefferson County Attorney To Stop Prosecuting Some Marijuana Cases

Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell announces policy changes regarding prosecution of marijuana possession.
Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell announces policy changes regarding prosecution of marijuana possession.

The Jefferson County Attorney's office will no longer prosecute some of the lowest-level marijuana possession cases, County Attorney Mike O'Connell announced Wednesday.

He said the decision was a matter of equity and resource allocation.

"My focus as Jefferson County Attorney is not the tired old line of tough on crime. My focus is to help stop crime and to help prevent crime," he said. "This use of discretion and the pursuit of fair and equal enforcement of the laws is part of that effort, working toward fairness and procedural justice."

He cited a Courier-Journal analysis earlier this year, which found black drivers were far more likely to be cited than white drivers for possession of marijuana in 2017. O'Connell said rates of marijuana use are similar for blacks and whites in general.

In response to the announcement, Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad issued a statement announcing a change in his department's policies.

"Our officers will be instructed not to routinely write citations for this specific offense based on guidelines provided by the County Attorney’s Office. Still, it is important for the public to understand marijuana possession remains illegal in Kentucky and as police officers we have a sworn duty to uphold the law," he said.

Officers who detect marijuana may still use it as probable cause to conduct a search, and may seize the drug for processing, regardless of whether they issue a citation, Conrad said.

An LMPD spokesman did not immediately respond to a follow-up question regarding what sort of training officers will receive to help them make decisions about when and when not to cite.

O'Connell's announcement comes two days after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting published a report that showed from January to June this year, LMPD spent nearly $10,000 on helicopter searches for marijuana grow operations.

After using thermal imaging and then conducting a search warrant at the home of Tyrone Evans, police didn't find any evidence of a grow operation -- but he was still cited for a small baggie of marijuana in his bedroom drawer.

The department recently implemented changes to its traffic stop policy, which are intended to have officers conduct stops without bias against certain groups, particularly African Americans.

In a recent interview with WFPL, Conrad said that move was an attempt to build trust with the community.

"We're trying to send a different message about how we're policing our community and policing neighborhoods in our community," he said.

Jean Porter, a spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Fischer, said in a written statement that Fischer recognizes the issues surrounding marijuana policy and encourages conversation in Louisville as well as at the state and federal level.

"We respect the decision of the County Attorney's Office amid an evolving conversation around marijuana here and across the U.S., and support Chief Conrad's efforts to adjust LMPD's practices in response to the new policy," she said.

By diverting resources away from small possession charges, the County Attorney's office will be able to focus more time and energy on serious crimes involving domestic violence, guns and DUIs, O'Connell said.

In February, the Baltimore State's Attorney announced a similar move, though that decision does not have a limit on the amount. O'Connell said laws regarding marijuana are evolving, and pointed out that 33 states have legalized marijuana in some way.

O'Connell's policy change applies to possession of less than one ounce of marijuana for personal use, when the person cited is not in possession of a firearm and is 21 years or older. To be dismissed, possession must be the only or the highest-level charge.

He said his office will dismiss possession cases that are currently pending if they meet these criteria.

The County Attorney's office will also decline to prosecute possession of drug paraphernalia when it is clearly used only for marijuana, O'Connell said.

Kentucky classifies possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 45 days in jail and a maximum fine of $250.

Earlier this year, the Metro Council passed an ordinance asking the Louisville Metro Police Department to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a "lowest level enforcement priority." LMPD said at the time that might not change how it operates.

Ordinance sponsor Jessica Green (D-1) said she was happy with the County Attorney's decision, particularly because it could free up resources to address more serious crimes that afflict the community.

"I'm mainly interested in what the actual effects will be, particularly for the community that I serve, which is primarily an indigent population of color that ... is treated in a disproportionate manner to the white population," she said.

Raoul Cunningham, who leads the local chapter of the NAACP and serves on that organization's national board, stood with O'Connell during the announcement. He called the change a "breakthrough," but said more work is needed.

"When we look at the impact of drugs, in overcrowding of correctional system, all of that's got to be taken into consideration," he said.

He would like to see marijuana decriminalized at the federal level.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.

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