Pot tickets aren't new to suburban Chicago
Police say fines fit the crime, help keep officers on the streets
Marijuana leaf (Chuck Berman / June 26, 2012)
Fines and procedures vary from town to town, but officials in suburbs that ticket say it keeps officers on the streets instead of bogged down in paperwork, and it still makes offenders pay a price.
"This is about the efficiency and effectiveness of the laws you are supposed to enforce," Wilmette police Chief Brian King said.
In Wilmette, police have been citing people with 10 grams of marijuana or less since the 1980s. The citation comes with a $200 fine, and King said it's more of a deterrent in many instances than using a state charge against an offender.
Wilmette is among 72 home rule communities in Illinois that have ticketing authority for marijuana possession, according to a 2011 study by Protestants for the Common Good. The Chicago-based advocacy group is calling for Chicago to pass a similar ordinance, saying a youthful indiscretion can cast a long shadow over someone's future.
"And that's the unfortunate part of it, that the price people pay is far greater than the risk to public safety," said Walter Boyd, director of criminal justice initiatives for the group.
Chicago's proposed ordinance would authorize police to issue a $250 to $500 ticket to offenders in possession of 15 grams or less. However, authorities would continue to arrest people caught smoking marijuana, carrying it on park or school grounds or trying to sell it, as well as those younger than 17 in possession.
Some critics say state charges are more of a deterrent than a local ticket and police need to be tough on marijuana use, especially for youths.
Suburbs that ticket have their own range of fines, between $25 and $1,000. In Itasca, fines max out at $750, which Chief Scott Heher said is "still a pretty harsh penalty."
Some suburbs ticket for up to 30 grams, though officers have discretion.
"One person might have a small amount and could receive a ticket, but somebody else with a small amount (and) two to three other arrests for the same thing more than likely would be arrested," Naperville police Sgt. Gregg Bell said.
In Northfield, only those caught with less than 2.5 grams are eligible for a ticket, according to police Chief William Lustig.
"It's a tolerance and a belief issue," Lustig said. "What is this going to teach them? And you want this to be a learning experience."
Some suburbs arrest offenders who receive tickets.
Deputy Chief Jim Kveton said Elmhurst takes the person into custody to build a better picture of the crime and build a history in case they come across the person again.
Palatine issues tickets of up to $750 for people caught with 10 grams or less, but there is more to the process. Cmdr. Kurt Schroeder said people caught with a small amount are still arrested, fingerprinted and photographed. They still have to go to the Cook County courthouse in Rolling Meadows and stand before a judge.
When Evanston changed its ordinance in November 2011, some worried it would spawn an increase in pot use. In the past, police had discretion on whether to pursue a municipal violation, which nets a $50 to $500 fine, or state charges. Now police assess municipal fines for those in possession of 10 grams or less as long as there are no other charges or a history of offenses.
Police there already have written 98 ordinance violations in the last six months, up from 90 they wrote in all of 2011, said Cmdr. Jay Parrott. But cannabis-related arrests are on pace to be lower, with 58 so far this year compared with 171 in all of 2011.
"I don't think there's any correlation between the ordinance change and increased cannabis use," he said.
Tribune reporters Jonathan Bullington, Andy Grimm, Christy Gutowski, John P. Huston, John Keilman, Annemarie Mannion, Ashley Rueff and Kate Thayer contributed.