With marijuana civil citation program implemented as originally intended in City of Sarasota, total of 32 citations issued since late February

After passage of 2019 city ordinance, former Police Chief DiPino made the program discretionary, instead of mandatory

Deputy Police Chief Rex Troche (left) and civilian narcotics Investigator Mike Harrell appear before the City Commission on May 3. News Leader image

On Sept. 3, 2019, the Sarasota City Commission unanimously approved an ordinance that required the Sarasota Police Department to issue a civil citation only to any person 18 or older found in possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia.

An individual found in violation of the new law would be required to pay a $100 fine or complete 10 hours of community service, within 60 days, for an organization approved by the city.

The ordinance went into effect 90 days later, on Dec. 3, 2019.

In February, however, following the late January resignation of Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, new Chief James Rieser and Mike Harrell, the department’s civilian narcotics investigator who oversees the civil citation program, appeared before the City Commission to report that, during a review of the initiative, they had found that it had not been implemented as the board members had planned.

As Rieser put it, “This program was not put out as it was intended.” He added that he had “a clear vision” of what the commission was expecting when the ordinance was approved.

An October 2019 Sarasota Police Department General Order included in the Feb. 17 commission agenda packet said this of the program: “It is the policy of the [department] that officers will use discretion in cases of misdemeanor possession of cannabis and paraphernalia and do so in a manner consistent with legal, ethical and moral constraints and policy restrictions.”

It added, “The decision of whether to proceed with arrest under the state statute or with citation under ordinance can only be made after completion of the full investigation and lawful search.”

This is the top of the October 2019 General Order. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Another section of that General Order directed officers to “consider the City of Sarasota Ordinance … and the civil citation process authorized therein in lieu of arrest for misdemeanor cannabis or paraphernalia possession whenever the subject meets the following criteria:

  • “The subject in possession is at least 18 yeas old;
  • “The cannabis weighs less than [20] grams;
  • “The subject was not ingesting, inhaling, vaping, smoking, consuming or otherwise introducing cannabis into the human body, or in possession of burnt cannabis, on any public property or on any private property held open to the public; and
  • “The possession of cannabis or cannabis paraphernalia was not in a form, or being possessed in a manner, which constitutes a felony under State law.”

During the commission’s May 3 regular meeting, City Manager Marlon Brown introduced Deputy Chief Rex Troche and Harrell, the civilian investigator, for the first quarterly update the board members were promised after the February discussion.

Within days of the Feb. 17 meeting, Harrell pointed out, Rieser scheduled a Command Staff meeting and announced that it would be mandatory to issue citations in circumstances outlined in the September 2019 city ordinance. That very week, Harrell added, “every sworn officer got new training.”

This is a section of a city staff memo regarding the civil citation program discussion for the Feb. 17 City Commission meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Further, he said, the department’s Narcotics Unit facilitated the purchase of scales for every police officer at the department, “so they could make sure they were doing the right thing …”

A copy of a Feb. 23 Police Department interoffice memo from Harrell to Rieser indicated those scales are small enough to be easily portable.

The department’s certified crime analyst also was directed to go over every arrest report involving marijuana, every day, to make sure that citations were issued appropriately, Harrell said. “I follow up on that daily with her.”

As a result of the changes, Harrell continued, for the few days of February after the discretionary policy ceased, and for March, the total number of citations issued was 18.

A copy of the report, included in the May 3 agenda packet, notes that the citations were issued to nine white individuals and nine Black persons in seven of the department’s zones in the city.

During his remarks to the commission, Harrell added that he had just completed the April report, which showed a total of 14 citations.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Mayor Hagen Brody pointed out that the goal of the commission in approving the 2019 ordinance was to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. He added that he believes Chief Rieser is implementing that direction.