Repeal of City of Sarasota Cannabis Citation Program ordinance called for, with close to 90% of individuals cited having failed to comply with measures

Sarasota Police Department to begin using jail diversion program through State Attorney’s Office

This data about compliance with the city program was provided to the commissioners in advance of the Nov. 20 meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With 88.75% of the people cited having failed to comply with a May 2019 City of Sarasota ordinance that decriminalized the possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, and a new state law having been enacted that has resulted in the establishment of a comparable jail diversion program through the State Attorney’s Office for the 12th Judicial District, the Sarasota city commissioners have voted 4-1 to discontinue the city program.

During their regular meeting on Nov. 20, Commissioner Erik Arroyo was the only one of the five board members to vote against direction to City Attorney Robert Fournier and his staff to formally draft an ordinance that repeals the Civil Citation Program involving cannabis possession, which went into effect in 2020.

The commissioners last discussed the noncompliance issue during their regular meeting on May 15. Then, a report from the city’s Independent Police Advisory Panel focused on the noncompliance problems. The Agenda Request Form for the Nov. 20 item pointed out that, as of that date, 427 citations had been issued, but only 47 people had paid the $100 fine, while one person had opted for the alternative of completing 10 hours of community service for an organization approved by the city.

The request form did say that 38 of the citations had been issued within the prior 60 days, so the 60-day “grace period” was in effect for them to comply by paying the fine or agreeing to perform community service.

During the discussion, Capt. Rob Armstrong of the Sarasota Police Department explained that if the commissioners chose to repeal the 2019 ordinance, then the Police Department would use what is called the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program (APAD), which also does not hold people criminally liable for possessions of small amounts of marijuana.

APAD “essentially accomplishes the same thing as the Civil Citation Ordinance,” Assistant City Attorney Joe Polzak explained. The Police Department would handle the pre-arrest diversion protocols and refer the individual to the State Attorney’s Office for follow-up and completion of the program, Polzak added.

“We already utilize [APAD] for a number of offenses, he pointed out.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo. File image

Commissioner Arroyo stressed that the goal of the Civil Citation Program was to decriminalize possession of cannabis “in conjunction with national and state trends …” He then sought clarification that if the State Attorney’s Office made any changes to the APAD in regard to cannabis, the city would have no control over how persons would be affected by those changes.

“It is the State Attorney’s [Office] program that’s adopted by — I think — all the member agencies in the 12th Circuit,” Polzak replied. “Correct,” he told Arroyo. “They could make a change.”

“If we normally have a program and there is a lack of compliance with a fine, do we eliminate the program?” Arroyo asked.

“We would not,” City Manager Marlon Brown told him. However, in this case, Brown continued, an alternative exists, and staff recommends that the commissioners agree to the shift to that alternative.

“So what happens if the alternative is eliminated somehow?” Arroyo asked.

Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson, who formerly was the deputy chief of police, explained that at the time the Civil Citation Program was put in place — at the urging of former Commissioner Hagen Brody — the APAD had not won approval from the Florida Legislature. “Our program actually was the icebreaker for the APAD here locally,” Robinson added.

As he understands the situation, Robinson continued, the state would have to modify the program before State Attorney Ed Brodsky in the 12th Judicial Circuit could make any changes in local procedures.

Moreover, Robinson explained, the APAD “doesn’t get rid of the opportunity for officers to utilize discretion and issue the marijuana civil citation. It would just be handled administratively by the state.”

If legislative modifications were enacted, he said, “We could always bring this back and re-enact [the city’s Civil Citation Program].”

Arroyo indicated that he believed that officers already have the option of using the APAD instead of issuing citations.

“No,” Robinson responded. “It is a mandatory issuance [of the city citation]. We do not use APAD for marijuana.”

When Arroyo then asked how many of the cannabis citations are issued in conjunction with felony charges, Capt. Armstrong said he did not have those figures.

Nonetheless, Armstrong confirmed that if someone commits a felony offense at the same time the person has possession of an amount of marijuana that falls within the citation parameters, “They are eligible for the civil citation.”

Arroyo also noted that felony charges would result in an individual’s being placed in jail. Could that be the reason people are not paying the fines, he asked.

“I don’t think we have the data on that,” Assistant City Attorney Polzak replied.

When Arroyo next asked, “Who qualifies for this APAD,” Armstrong responded that that information was included in the backup agenda material.

That material says, “The Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program is designed for non-violent misdemeanor subjects with no or minimal criminal record to provide these subjects with an opportunity at rehabilitation and to avoid a criminal conviction.

“ It is the policy of the Sarasota Police Department that officers will use the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program in cases of non-violent misdemeanor crimes outlined in this policy and do so in a manner consistent with legal, ethical and moral constraints and policy restrictions.”

The eligible misdemeanor offenses are as follows, it points out:

  • “A. Retail/Petit theft if property is valued under $300.
  • “B. Possession of alcohol under 21 years of age.
  • “C. Possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis.
  • “D. Possession drug paraphernalia.
  • “E. Trespass.
  • “F. Other non-violent misdemeanor offenses, excluding ineligible offenses listed in this policy.
  • “G. City Ordinance Violations.”

    This is the citation form for the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion program. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Duplication of programs

As the discussion continued, Mayor Liz Alpert said, “I think it makes it more difficult for our [Police Department] to administer a program when there’s duplicative programs for the same issue.” The APAD seems to simplify the process for officers to issue civil citations, she added.

Moreover, Alpert noted, if the City Commission eliminated the Civil Citation Program, it could re-enact it in the future if it saw fit to do so.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch added that she had attended the Independent Police Advisory Panel meetings when the members addressed the issues with the Civil Citation Program. “They really discussed it and asked questions and dug into it,” she emphasized, noting that they recommend that the commission eliminate the program and allow the police officers to use APAD.

Deputy Sarasota City Manager Pat Robinson Image courtesy Sarasota Police Department

After she offered her comments, Deputy City Manager Robinson told the commissioners that he had just checked with Police Chief Rex Troche. If the board members decided to move away from the Civil Citation Program, Robinson said, “The chief is ready to mandate that we use APAD exactly in the same fashion we currently do for the marijuana civil citation.”

“Thank you,” Alpert replied.

Both Commissioners Kyle Battie and Debbie Trice agreed with the Independent Police Advisory Panel recommendation, as well.

“I think we all on the commission were very disturbed to hear the 88% noncompliance [statistic],” Trice said. “Since APAD has been successful for other misdemeanors,” she added, “I think it makes sense for us to move over and use that program. An 88% noncompliance sort of sends a message, ‘Don’t worry about breaking the law. You can get away with it,’ ” she continued, “and that moves into other misdemeanors.”

Robinson then told the commissioners that if they voted to repeal the ordinance, he would ask Heather Salzman, administrator of the Independent Police Advisory Panel, and Chief Troche to provide monthly reports on the handling of cases involving minor amounts of cannabis during the transition period, “just so we can monitor it.”

After Arroyo protested again, Alpert called for a motion, which Battie made, directing the City Attorney’s Office to draft an ordinance repealing the Civil Citation Program, and Trice seconded it. The motion passed 4-1, with Arroyo casting the “No” vote.