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Municipalities weigh good, bad of ticketing for pot possession

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says she has talked Chicago’s police commissioner about halting arrests for low-level drug possession.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says she has talked to Chicago’s police commissioner about halting arrests for low-level drug possession. | File~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 22, 2011 1:34AM

In most towns, here’s what happens if an officer finds a small joint in your pocket:

You will be arrested. The officer will drive you back to the city or county jail, where another officer will fingerprint you, take your mug shot and hold you in a cell until you post bond. The police department will send the joint to a state crime lab to make sure it’s really marijuana. Meanwhile, if you don’t or can’t post bond on the misdemeanor charge, you’ll sit in local or county jail until your first court date. Because you’re facing possible jail time and a $1,500 fine for the misdemeanor, you’re more likely to go to trial, at which point a police officer will have to come to testify.

Facing this long legal process, it’s probably not surprising that more towns are looking at issuing speeding-type tickets for minor marijuana possession. Aurora, Sugar Grove and Yorkville have already ticketed low-level, first time offenders, with varying levels of success. In the past few months, Oswego and Cook County have also considered tickets. With thinning police budgets, there’s a good chance more towns will be investigating tickets.

But pot tickets have not been free of complications. Aurora abandoned the marijuana tickets after a few months because of evidence issues. And towns that consider simply writing tickets for marijuana possession are accused of being money-hungry, soft on crime or immoral.

Success and failure

In the Fox Valley, Sugar Grove was the pioneer for marijuana tickets. In 2008, the Sugar Grove Police Department formalized its policy to allow officers to write city tickets to first-time offenders caught with a small amount of marijuana. Within that narrow window, officers still had discretion to make an arrest if they thought that was the more appropriate action. Tickets for first-time marijuana possession or drug paraphernalia possession were $200 (since increased to $325), in line with what judges typically handed down.

For years, Sugar Grove had seen the cases get tossed out of court because of backups at the state crime labs. Meanwhile, officers were racking up overtime sitting in court. So the thinking became: Why not give first-time offenders a break and keep officers on the street?

Since 2008, Sugar Grove police have issued 25 marijuana tickets and 30 drug paraphernalia tickets. Sugar Grove Detective John Sizer said no one who was issued a Sugar Grove marijuana ticket has ever been arrested again for the same offense. Sizer calls that a success.

“It’s a huge time saver for everyone,” he said.

For about a year, Yorkville has also issued marijuana tickets for first offenders caught with less than 2.5 grams of marijuana. Deputy Police Chief Larry Hilt said there have only been a handful of tickets, but he’s complimentary of the program.

About a month after Sugar Grove changed its rules, Aurora passed its own marijuana ticketing ordinance, authorizing tickets for first-time offenders found with less than 30 grams. But less than a year later, the city stopped issuing the tickets.

“It’s a nice thing in concept, but it just hasn’t worked out well,” said Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas. “It really hasn’t turned out as nice and clean as we’d hoped.”

Anyone who was ticketed could still request an administrative hearing. So Thomas said the hitch came when suspects figured out they could force the city to send the substance to state labs to confirm it is marijuana. At that point, it no longer became time- or cost-effective to issue the tickets, Thomas said. The department is working to revise the policy and trying to move the marijuana testing into its own lab, Thomas said.

Thomas was also intrigued by an alternative proposal: In Sugar Grove, anyone who wants to fight the ticket has the charges upgraded to a misdemeanor.

“If they don’t think they’re being treated fairly and they want to fight it, then it’s up to them to go to court,” Sizer said.

Time saver

Other municipalities have opened the door to marijuana tickets. Earlier this month, Evanston’s mayor proposed tickets for first-time offenders. In July, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she had talked to Chicago’s police chief about halting arrests for low-level drug possession.

“I suggested to him that although the law is pretty clear that such possession is a violation of the law, that since the judges routinely and almost universally dismiss such low-level drug charges, that the police might stop arresting people for this since it clogs up our jail,” Preckwinkle said.

In 2009, the Cook County Board approved an ordinance that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure allows Cook County sheriff’s police to issue a $200 ticket for possessing 10 grams or less.

Last month, the Oswego Village Board considered a proposal to issue $750 tickets for marijuana- and alcohol-related offenses. Village President Brian LeClercq thought the adjustment would have been a reasonable compromise, since he saw so many pot cases being tossed.

“You thought you were being punitive, and you’re not,” he said. “We’re tying up so many resources, and I just thought there was a better way.”

The Oswego trustees rejected the marijuana tickets unanimously. The trustees said they were unsure police would be able to confirm who was truly a first-time offender. Plus, they felt the tickets wouldn’t be a sufficient deterrent. LeClercq admitted that tying the marijuana tickets to alcohol tickets might have doomed the ordinance in a town still sensitive to alcohol-related issues after five teens were killed in a drunken driving crash.

“I think if we had more dialogue, it would have been different,” LeClercq said.

Not a money grab

When local municipalities talk about marijuana tickets, they stress giving breaks to first-time offenders and freeing up the time for police, courts and offenders. Most officials balk at the suggestion that there are financial motivations to switching to marijuana tickets.

“Anyone who said it was just a money grab by the village — that’s just baloney,” LeClercq said.

Whether they want to acknowledge it or not, there is a financial incentive for cities to issue tickets. Fines collected on a normal misdemeanor conviction are split between the county and city. But 100 percent of revenue from tickets goes to the city.

In the first half of 2011, Oswego police have made 80 arrests for marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession that could have been ticketed under the proposed ordinance. That would have netted Oswego $60,000. In Aurora, there were 165 arrests this year that would have met the marijuana ticket threshold, Thomas said.

And in the first eight months of 2011, Oswego police logged five hours of overtime arresting people for such offenses and going to court. In 2009, officers logged 41 hours of overtime, costing the village $2,145.

Allen St. Pierre, executive director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington D.C., said the recession is forcing more towns and states to consider lightening their stance on marijuana possession. Fourteen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, St. Pierre said, and others have significantly lowered their fines. In Ohio, up to 100 grams of marijuana is a $150 fine. In Illinois, possession of 100 grams of marijuana is a felony charge with a fine up to $25,000.

St. Pierre’s organization supports treating marijuana the same as alcohol. They believe it should be legal if you’re using it responsibly — no selling to kids, no smoking and driving. But he supports these smaller, incremental changes, too. He said the local towns considering marijuana tickets are no longer an aberration.

“If this was a stock trading chart, there would be no doubt where this is heading,” he said. “It’s pretty clear (decriminalization) is an upward trend.”

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