The likelihood of people being arrested and facing jail time if caught smoking marijuana in Baton Rouge will now depend, in large part, on whether they are inside city limits and which law enforcement agency catches them.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Feb. 28 eliminated jail time as a possible penalty for people convicted of possessing less than 14 grams of marijuana. They also changed local law to direct police to issue a summons to appear in court, rather than an arrest, when they find someone with marijuana and pursue city charges.
Those convicted in City Court will pay a fine ranging from $40 to $100, depending on how many previous marijuana offenses they have. The law in Baton Rouge closely matches a New Orleans law change in 2016.
But the Baton Rouge ordinance doesn’t create a uniform policy across the parish. It does not apply in Baker, Central and Zachary. And the Baton Rouge Police Department, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and State Police have different marching orders for following city versus state law when it comes to marijuana possession cases.
City Court had 1,481 possession of marijuana filings last year, which includes outstanding warrants and marijuana counts connected to other charges as well, according to the clerk of court. Most of the cases sent to City Court are handled by the Baton Rouge Police Department.
The 19th Judicial District Court had 1,961 marijuana case filings last year, including bonds and affidavits. The 19th JDC handles marijuana possession cases when law enforcement officers book the offender under state law.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul told Metro Council members that BRPD would continue its regular practice of issuing a summons to someone with a small amount of marijuana and opt for the city charges unless the person is being accused of other criminal behavior, won’t reveal their identity or the officer doesn’t believe they will show up in court. In those cases, officers can choose to book someone into jail under state law, he said.
BRPD data from last year shows that of 983 cases for possession of under 14 grams marijuana, just one included an arrest. The remainder received a summons for marijuana, though they may have had other counts that resulted in an arrest.
Like in Baton Rouge, issuing a summons rather than an arrest was already standard practice for the New Orleans Police Department before New Orleans lawmakers changed their marijuana ordinance, according to Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans.
Goyeneche said that if Baton Rouge police were already issuing a summons rather than an arrest in most marijuana cases, the ordinance change in the capital city probably will not have a “profound impact” on the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison population.
“There was a lot of misinformation that the New Orleans jail was full of marijuana users,” he said. His nonprofit’s analysis of the New Orleans prison population showed that just 6 percent of inmates in the jail between January and June 2015 — before the law changed there — were being held on misdemeanor charges. Another analysis that ran in August 2017 showed that just five inmates, or less than 1 percent of the prison population, were awaiting trials on misdemeanor drug charges.
Another issue that could affect how widespread the usage of the new ordinance is in Baton Rouge is that the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and State Police are not bound by it. State Police follow state law for marijuana possession, and a conviction under state law for under 14 grams can include up to $300 in fines and up to 15 days in jail.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said the agency usually books people under state law, but deputies can use city ordinances if they desire. They also have the option of issuing a summons rather than making an arrest, but Hicks said there is not necessarily a policy directive to guide deputies on which one to use.
“Typically for us, it’s at the deputy’s discretion whether they feel like the person needs to be booked,” she said.
Hicks said the Sheriff’s Office was not closely involved in conversations about the marijuana penalty changes and that it would seek guidance from the District Attorney’s Office about whether it changes much for the agency.
Though New Orleans police also have the legal authority to make marijuana arrests under state law, it’s uncommon for them to use it, said John Wool, the director of justice policy at the Vera Institute in New Orleans.
Wool applauded the law change in Baton Rouge.
“Police departments should use the least intrusive interactions that fit the alleged offense,” Wool said. “And when they go beyond that, it leads to the sorts of tensions and distrust and animosity. It’s a good step, but it’s certainly only one of many needed steps.”
While the Sheriff’s Office patrols outside of Baton Rouge’s city limits and in Central, both Baker and Zachary have laws that differ from the Baton Rouge’s new marijuana ordinance. Baker’s City Council recently voted to make its marijuana ordinance match state law, and Zachary uses state law as well.
Baker Police Chief Carl Dunn said officers usually issue a summons for a small possession of marijuana, but they have the option of arresting and booking depending on the incident. Zachary City Prosecutor Trae Welch, who also sits on the Metro Council, pointed out that people can face mild penalties for marijuana possession under state law, but the judge over the case has more discretion.
Welch opposed the changes to Baton Rouge’s marijuana laws for a number of reasons, one of which was that the new penalties “tie the hands of the judiciary.” He also said people fail to understand that just because the penalty for marijuana possession could be as low as $40, pleading guilty and paying the fine still result in a drug conviction on someone’s criminal record.
“It costs more money to speed now in the city of Baton Rouge than it does to get a marijuana charge,” Welch said.