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Denton officials mull citations for marijuana possession

Let's talk pot.

The Dallas City Council has approved a "cite-and-release" program, which allows Dallas police officers to ticket people who are caught with fewer than 4 ounces of marijuana. 

Now, Denton officials are weighing in on whether to bring cite-and-release policies to their police department.

Right now, local authorities typically arrest people who are caught with a usable amount of marijuana. In 2016, Denton police arrested 224 people on a possession of marijuana charges. Officers arrested 261 people on possession charges in 2015.

A cite-and-release policy would allow Denton officers to issue a citation for the misdemeanor marijuana charge instead of arresting, transporting and booking the person into city jail at police headquarters — a process that can take two to three hours. The accused offender goes on his way, allowing the police officer to continue taking calls and patrolling the streets.

However, the policy does not decriminalize marijuana or lessen the severity of the charge. The person who is accused would eventually have to appear before a judge in county court, where the person could be sentenced to jail or probation if found guilty. The person could also be sentenced to jail for missing the court date.

Denton police Deputy Chief Lenn Carter emphasized a citation for a marijuana charge is not the same as a routine traffic ticket. The only thing it could prevent is the initial arrest and jail booking. But, he said, the policy would alleviate some pressure on police officers during their 10- to 12-hour shifts.

"It would allow us to handle the problem without having to make an arrest and take up all the officers' time," Carter said. "It would definitely help us in terms of manpower."

Even with a cite-and-release policy in place, officers can still arrest people for possession of pot if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

The program is becoming increasingly popular in major cities around the country. 

"Cite-and-release" is a provision that was created in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure in 2007. It allows officers to issue citations to anyone accused of committing a Class B or Class A misdemeanor, which includes possession of marijuana offenses.

A person caught with marijuana weighing 2 ounces or less is charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a possible sentence of up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. If they are caught with between 2 and 4 ounces of marijuana, they are charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

A cite-and-release policy would not apply to felony marijuana offenses involving possession of more than 4 ounces.

In Denton County, if a person gets caught with a small amount of pot, the person is arrested, charged and jailed. A citation, or a ticket, does not exist for misdemeanor marijuana offenses, First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said. In order for an officer to issue a possession of marijuana citation, she said the county court judge and the local agency would still have to work out a way for the officer to "ticket" the person.

"The officer on the street would have to be able to write on the citation the court, the date and time," Beck said in an email.  "The only way [the police officers] would know that information is if the courts provided it to them.  No agency in our county uses cite-and-release and I highly doubt a single county criminal court judge has even been asked about this."

Beck added that cite-and-release procedures don't affect current county court proceedings.

Municipal Court Judge Robin Ramsay said he generally supports cite-and-release because it keeps low-level offenders out of the city jail. He said it eases the financial burden for people who may not be able to afford bail or time away from work.

"I think anything that lessens the burden that pretrial incarceration may have on people is important for their jobs and their families," he said.

However, Ramsay said there are some caveats to the program. Local officers need to identify marijuana offenders before they are released from the scene of a potential crime. But, if the offender isn't truthful about identifying information, that process can become extremely complicated for the officer, he said.

The officer would need to ensure the person is properly identified before the the suspect is released with a ticket, and jail is one of the most efficient ways to do that, Ramsay said.

"This will probably spur a conversation between the various municipal jails and county jails to work out a process where we can release [a marijuana offender] on the street or a hybrid where they would be released from the jail on a promise to appear [in court]," Ramsay said. "One of the things jail does do is identify a person, so that way you know who you're talking to so you can release them with some certainty that they're coming back."

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.