TX: Now If You're Caught With Weed In Dallas, You Won't Go Directly To Jail

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Ron Strider

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People caught with small amounts of marijuana in Dallas won't be taken straight to jail now, after Dallas County commissioners on Tuesday passed a "cite and release" program aimed at freeing cops to focus on violent crimes.

After a heated debate, commissioners voted 4-1 to allow Dallas police to issue a court summons to people found with less than 4 ounces of pot.

While laws legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana have swept across the country, they remain a political long shot in Texas. However, some cities – including Austin, San Antonio and Houston – have taken advantage of a 2007 law that allowed law enforcement to cite and release defendants accused of certain misdemeanors including marijuana possession.

The measure had been passed by the Dallas City Council but required the approval of the county to implement it. Officials say the program will start Dec. 1.

Supporters argued cite and release frees up police to focus on violent crimes and reduces the cost of incarceration for both the county and the defendant. Commissioner John Wiley Price was the sole vote against the measure. He felt the proposal didn't go far enough to help defendants, and it was unfair to people found with marijuana in areas of the county outside of the city of Dallas.

The change could affect about 77 people per month – the average number arrested on misdemeanor marijuana possession by Dallas police.

Here's how it will work: When someone is found with marijuana, police will fingerprint the person and issue a summons to go to court. A judge will sign an arrest warrant for those who don't show up. For those who do appear, they will be fingerprinted again and have their mug shot taken, then appear before a magistrate to ensure they have an attorney and are aware of their next court date. The district attorney will then pursue the case in the same way it's handled now.

Price argued that Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson should do what the district attorney in Harris County did, which he called a "better program." There, defendants can avoid a criminal record if they complete a four-hour drug education class and pay $150.

But in Dallas County, Price said, even if the defendant avoids going to jail at the beginning, those found guilty still "will have a criminal record, and will be saddled with all the social and economic disadvantages that accompany a criminal conviction."

However, Commissioner Mike Cantrell, the sole Republican member, argued that if the district attorney changed the way marijuana is handled countywide, it would be an overreach that would take away power from cities that may want to be tougher on crime.

Johnson, also a Republican, agreed that cities should decide how they want to handle marijuana arrests.

"I don't think it's fair that any one person would be responsible for passing a law," Johnson said, adding that she would be happy to work with other cities that decide to follow Dallas' path. She said that defendants with otherwise clean records could still avoid a criminal record through a diversion program.

Cite and release will cost the county just under $20,000 to fund bailiffs and clerks, according to the budget office.

Dallas police accounted for 2,117 of the county's total 5,106 marijuana possession cases from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30. Of those DPD cases, 985 would have been eligible for cite and release.

Supporters of the measure packed the Commissioners Court meeting. They cheered when it passed.

"Cite and release is not about politics, not about process, not about legalization," said Howie Darter, of the group Faith in Texas. "It's about how we as a society value a person's life and not have their life destroyed for making a simple mistake."

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