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County Might Ease Prosecutions For Pot

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Waukesha - Joining a movement to decriminalize certain marijuana cases, Waukesha County officials are considering handling minor instances of possession like traffic tickets.

If the County Board approves, first-time offenders caught by sheriff's deputies with small amounts of marijuana or drug paraphernalia would be required only to pay a fine and would not get a criminal record. Currently, deputies refer all such cases to the district attorney's office for possible prosecution as misdemeanors, with penalties of up to six months in jail possible.

Many other municipalities and counties in Wisconsin already have taken steps toward decriminalization, but an advocate for relaxed marijuana laws expressed surprise that move would be under consideration in traditionally conservative Waukesha County.

"It's kind of an acknowledgment that Waukesha County is growing. They're not sweating the small stuff," said Madison-based activist Gary Storck.

Details of the proposed new policy have not been released yet. In Milwaukee County, offenders pay forfeitures of less than $500 in some cases if they have no significant criminal record and if they are caught with a small amount of pot for personal use only.

Waukesha County Sheriff Dan Trawicki said he supports the change because it would simplify the handling of minor drug cases and would ease needless strain on the court system.

Instead of processing an arrest and asking the district attorney to decide on criminal charges, a sheriff's deputy could just write a ticket and allow the defendant to pay a fine as a civil forfeiture.

"In certain cases, it's more efficient and it's appropriate," Trawicki said. "It's not going to change how we do business. It's just the manner in which we do business," he said.

The switch is reflected in the county's proposed 2008 budget as a new source of revenue for the Sheriff's Department, with $37,200 projected for the department next year. County Board members must approve the budget and a separate ordinance authorizing the new procedure.

Trawicki said officials have been discussing the change for several years but that it was opposed by then-District Attorney Paul Bucher. Bucher, who resigned last year after 18 years in office, said he could not endorse decriminalization while also working against drug abuse in programs such as DARE.

"I thought it sent out the wrong message for me personally," he said Thursday. "Philosophically, it wasn't consistent with my beliefs."

District Attorney Brad Schimel, however, said he believes that many people nowadays have tried marijuana and that residents of the county are ready for a limited level of decriminalization.

"I think times have changed," he said.

Sheriff's officials briefed a County Board committee on the idea recently while reviewing the 2008 budget proposal.

County Supervisor Bonnie Morris of Dousman, chairman of the Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee, said the committee seemed to strongly support the idea.

Morris said many other municipalities in the area have already taken this step.

"It's not something that Sheriff Trawicki dreamed up," she said. "We're very comfortable with it."

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2007 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Contact: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online -- Editorials
Website: JSOnline.com, Web site of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
 
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