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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Police Keep Up Pot Arrests—Mostly of Black People

Posted by on Wed, Feb 24, 2010 at 11:25 AM

Despite the new city attorney announcing that he would refuse to file marijuana charges and a law that makes pot the city’s lowest enforcement priority, Seattle police continue to make marijuana possession arrests, according to records obtained from the Seattle City Attorney’s office. Since January 1, Seattle police officers have referred cases to prosecutors stemming from 33 marijuana possession arrests.

“We understand that it is a low priority and the city attorney may not file charges, but that does not negate the fact that it is against the law,” says Seattle Police Department spokeswoman Renee Witt.

Black people are more likely to be arrested, the records indicate. Of the arrestees, 18 of them were black and 14 were white—even though only 8.2 percent of the city’s population is black but 68.9 percent of the city’s population is white, demographic statistics show. Federal studies have shown that black people in metropolitan areas use marijuana at only slightly higher rates that white people.

“I don’t necessarily think there is a huge disparity there,” says Witt. She adds, “If you go to an area in North Seattle where there are not a lot of people of color, there are more white offenders. If you go to South Seattle, where there is a higher percentage of people of color, you may see higher numbers there.”

But several studies have found racial disparities in Seattle's drug enforcement—by Harvard, by a UW professor, by the ACLU (.pdf), and the City of Seattle—suggesting a systemic bias in SPD practices.

Seattle voters made marijuana possession arrests the lowest enforcement priority in 2003 by passing Initiative 75. Pete Holmes, the city attorney elected in November, said he would stop all pot prosecutions. He’s remained mostly true to that pledge; his office filed only one pot possession case as one of three charges: interfering with traffic, use of a weapon, and pot possession. The defendant plead guilty.

The records indicate that none of the suspects were booked into jail. They may have been cited after being searched, says drug policy director of the ACLU of Washington Alison Holcomb. However, Holcomb adds, “From a legal standpoint, they are arrested if they are not free to go.”

This suggests that Seattle Police Department, which claims to be understaffed, is using state pot laws largely as an excuse to stop people on the street and search them, amounting to a form of institutionalized harassment (again, mostly of black people). Even though defendants won’t go to jail or face any penalty, and police have wide discretion in enforcement, and the city attorney Holmes believes it’s within the legal right of law enforcement to pass over pot cases, Witt defends the SPD's practice. "Until it is against the law to make an arrest we will continue to arrest people when appropriate, when we can, and when there is not something more pressing at that time," says Witt.


Comments (32) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Were they arrests for soley marijuana possession, or was marijuana possession often cited along side things like assault?

Reminds me of this:…

The first paragraph makes it sound like they searched the guy for jaywalking and arrested him for pot possession, while in fact he was actually searched and arrested because of an outstanding warrant.
Posted by doceb on February 24, 2010 at 11:31 AM · Report this
How many of those 33 pot arrests were on poor people(of any color?) My guess is all 33.
Posted by UnCommonSense on February 24, 2010 at 11:34 AM · Report this
Dominic Holden 4
@ 1) In the 32 instances where no case was filed by Holmes's office, the records don't show any additional charges from SPD. That doesn't necessarily indicate that there weren't any--the prosecutor's records I received just don't show them. I called this morning to ask what charges may have accompanied these marijuana cases, but haven't heard back.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 24, 2010 at 11:35 AM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 5
If pot were legalized in the city, city police would obviously be stopped from doing this. Or could they enforce state, county, Federal law to bypass such a thing?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on February 24, 2010 at 11:37 AM · Report this
Hernandez 6
So, SPD understands that nothing will come of pot possession arrests, yet they continue to make them anyway. Remember this the next time they complain about being underfunded. They're making a deliberate choice to waste our money.
Posted by Hernandez on February 24, 2010 at 11:43 AM · Report this
Fifty-Two-Eighty 7
Joe, they can certainly enforce county and state law even if it's legal in the city. And, as for federal law, the DEA seems to be doing a good enough job of that for everybody.
Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty on February 24, 2010 at 11:46 AM · Report this
Dominic: thanks for the reply! Keep us updated.
Posted by doceb on February 24, 2010 at 11:47 AM · Report this
smade 9
All the burglary cases were solved then?
Posted by smade on February 24, 2010 at 11:48 AM · Report this
Andy_Squirrel 10
I don't want to make any assumptions here....but after I buy pot it pretty much never leaves the house. Do ya'll just tote that shit around town and dance aboot like you're high as a kite or something? How do you get busted for possession...and for that matter, why are you carrying it around like an accessory?

How about we try an experiment people of seattle? don't carry that shit around....and if you buy, go straight home, very casually & drop it off. This may have more to do with people being idiots with their drugs and less about racial profiling.
Posted by Andy_Squirrel on February 24, 2010 at 11:51 AM · Report this
Cook 11
@10: homeless people=no place to drop off their marijuana. not everyone is as lucky as you or me
Posted by Cook on February 24, 2010 at 11:58 AM · Report this
Rotten666 12
@11 Luck had nothing to do with it.
Posted by Rotten666 on February 24, 2010 at 12:01 PM · Report this
lark 14
I agree with @1 & @10. I am finding a more and more specious argument that an African-American male caught with pot is necessarily racially profiled. What the heck are so many arrestees (of any race) doing with pot walking around or driving (read: in-transit or out-of-their home)? While I do favor it's medicinal use under the law (I also think it should be decrimminalized but I am not really gung-ho on its casual usage), I simply don't believe an SPD officer walks up to a black fellow without probable cause of some other offense. There is something missing in this situation. I know you're waiting for more info from the police but I think your conclusion is quick to jump to.
Posted by lark on February 24, 2010 at 12:08 PM · Report this
I think you've reached an unsubstantiated conclusion when you state that the data suggest police are using pot laws as an excuse to stop people on the street and search them. You should look at whether the defendants were stopped/cited ONLY on suspicion of marijuana possession before you reach that conclusion. (33 police reports shouldn't be too many for you to request.) The vast, vast majority of pot cases I handed as a prosecutor arose when the defendant was stopped for something else, searched incident to arrest, and found to have a pipe or an eighth in his pocket. If the defendants in your 33 cases were also cited for DWLS, malicious mischief, shoplifting, or any other crime, your conclusion is simply inaccurate. But I don't know--maybe your 33 cases were for pot only. Check the police reports before jumping to conclusions, though.

Most marijuana charges are for crimes of stupidity. If you're dumb enough to drive around with your pipe in the console, or to shoplift a 22 while you have a bag of weed in your pocket, don't expect the police to ignore that weed when they're citing you for something else.
Posted by giantladysquirrels on February 24, 2010 at 12:11 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 17
@ 14) It's unclear whether racial profiling is indeed happening--it's a debate that has been going on a long time. And it won't end because there are specific instances, unknown motivations of the officer, and investigating every one is practically impossible. But, looking at the big picture, study after study shows that black people are arrested at incredibly higher rates than white people for the same crime. And study after study shows that white people are committing these offenses at roughly the same rate as black people.

Race aside, if police know that folks won't get prosecuted for pot, that voters don't want them arrested for pot, and that the city's lawyer says there's no obligation to punish them, then why are cops arresting these folks?
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 24, 2010 at 12:25 PM · Report this
kitschnsync 19
Those of you that think racial profiling isn't at play here are deluding yourselves.

Considering the high number of pot smokers in Seattle, a cop could stop virtually any kid on the street and turn up weed. The fact that such a large percentage of the people arrested for this are black supports Dom's theory that they were profiled and then booked on whatever charges the cops could turn up.

Harassment, in other words.

And it speaks to a larger point: Drug laws in general are a tool of racial oppression. The races basically use drugs at the same rate. Check out prison statistics on drug offenders- notice any disparities in the racial numbers?
Posted by kitschnsync on February 24, 2010 at 12:34 PM · Report this
Packeteer 20
@17 Wait what? White people and black people commit the same crimes at the same rate? You and I both know that is bullshit. Sure the reason behind certain races committing certain crimes more may be cultural or have racist backgrounds but you know its not all roughly equal. White people commit most of the lynchings. Anywhere there is a cultural difference there will be a crime difference.

So I am absolutely sure that the police are arresting black people for pot at a higher rate than white people but don't you think that it is possible and even probable that more pot is smoked in public by black people

This isn't because they are different but because so much of pop culture that is pushed onto people of color encourages them to do so. I think its a tragedy that young people of color are encouraged to behave this way because it is society's way of keeping them down.

Also consider the geography of the urban environment. South Seattle is denser than north Seattle and has more people of color. If you go to a cul de sac on north Seattle and smoke pot probably the police are not going to see you. Go to an area where there is the density we love so much and you are more likely to have people picked up.
Posted by Packeteer on February 24, 2010 at 12:39 PM · Report this
"Something more pressing" = "Sitting in a motel room waiting for the hookers they ordered up on Craig's List".
Posted by COMTE on February 24, 2010 at 12:58 PM · Report this
This is just another example of how decriminalization is insufficient. Legalization is the only way to go.
Posted by dwight moody on February 24, 2010 at 1:04 PM · Report this
You Look Like I Need A Drink! 23
All your argument proves is that black people are more likely than whites to be in posession of Mary-Jane when searched.
Posted by You Look Like I Need A Drink! on February 24, 2010 at 1:23 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 25
Let's be clear here.

They want an excuse for why they do what they do.

If pot searches is it, that's what they'll use.

Meanwhile, the graffiti on our streets from taggers grows every day we waste police resources on MJ.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 24, 2010 at 1:39 PM · Report this
lark 26
@17 Dominic,
Thanks for your reply. I still disagree. You use the words "study after study". When I see them written, I raise an internal red flag. I get even more dubious. Human behavior(s)(as in groups of humans) are indeed, different. I don't understand why. This great and heated debate regarding racial profiling and disproportionate arrests will continue as your rhetorical question at the end of your snippet suggests. I simply don't think it is racial profiling that the SPD is conducting. You're good to wait for more data from them.

Put simply: carrying pot or paraphenalia while walking or driving is foolish behavior just as drinking beer/wine/liquor publicly out of a bag is. It is also against the law. In addition, if one knows they have an arrest record or an outstanding arrest warrent on them, why on earth would that same person obtain/smoke/keep pot or any other illegal drug and/or paraphenalia on their person especially in-transit? That makes no sense.
Posted by lark on February 24, 2010 at 1:41 PM · Report this
Sir Vic 27
Junior prosecutors like it when cops bust black people on slam dunk charges like possession. They are playing the numbers: fewer black people have the 10K to spend on effective counsel than white people do; public defenders spend their 5 minutes with the arrested black person encouraging them to take a plea deal; the junior prosecutor gets another conviction on their resume without having to deal with unpredictable juries or judges. Those freebie convictions add up to a senior prosecutor role, which can then be parlayed into the big bucks: private practice or political office.

Pete Holmes has made it to the top without having to go the traditional route of building a career on the backs of people too poor to afford justice. The junior prosecuting staff should be assumed to be playing by the same rules most other prosecuting attorneys do, and they care far more about their careers than individual acts of justice.

The SPD should likewise be assumed to be playing by the same rules that most other metro police forces do: black people = easy marks.
Posted by Sir Vic on February 24, 2010 at 1:49 PM · Report this
You Look Like I Need A Drink! 28
"black people = easy marks."

Ummm, they bring it on themselves... No one is forcing anyone to carry around illegal substances. Clearly an addiction problem, clearly stupidity on their part.
Posted by You Look Like I Need A Drink! on February 24, 2010 at 1:57 PM · Report this
shuvoff 30
This disturbing continuance of enforcing a law the voters of Seattle have said they do not want enforced, and the insufficient protection of Medical Marijuana Patients under state law is why I'm volunteering to collect signatures of I-1068.…
Posted by shuvoff on February 24, 2010 at 2:05 PM · Report this
shuvoff 34
I-1068 is a State Wide Initiative
Ballot Title
Statement of Subject: Initiative Measure No. 1068 concerns marijuana.

This measure would remove state civil and criminal penalties for persons eighteen years or older who cultivate, possess, transport, sell, or use marijuana. Restrictions and penalties for persons under eighteen would be retained.

Ballot Measure Summary
This measure would remove state civil and criminal penalties for persons eighteen years or older who cultivate, possess, transport, sell, or use marijuana. Marijuana would no longer be defined as a “controlled substance.” Civil and criminal penalties relating to drug paraphernalia and provisions authorizing seizure or forfeiture of property would not apply to marijuana-related offenses committed by persons eighteen years or older. The measure would retain current restrictions and penalties applicable to persons under eighteen.

The only thing this initiative will change is the criminal code regarding adult cultivation, use and possession of marijuana. It will help our state save the $100+Million dollars we spend every year on these arrests and prosecutions, protect patients who are still at risk of arrest under current law and allow our farmers to fight the federal hypocrisy of the ban of hemp farming. (While we import hemp products from Canada & China)

It will not change the laws regarding driving under the influence (which applies to being sleepy as well, in case you didn't know) it won't let people under 18 legally obtain/possess it, it will not alter local ordinances regarding smoking in public, and because initiatives are restricted to changing one thing at a time, it will not enforce any regulatory or tax structure.

It will be up to the voters to decide if they would like to advance in this arena where the legislature has failed.

If you still have questions about this political campaign to reform our failed marijuana policy go here:
Posted by shuvoff on February 24, 2010 at 2:29 PM · Report this
shuvoff 35

But when I-1068 passes by a vote of the people that means the legislature will be forced to actually deal with the hypocritical corruption-inducing ridiculousness of our current (non)system, instead of continually avoiding the issue every session.

"Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere." - George Washington, U.S. President
Posted by shuvoff on February 24, 2010 at 2:34 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 36
very true, @35.
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 24, 2010 at 3:49 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 37
what i believe is happening is that the white kids are given a pass/warning and the black kids are punished, and thus documented, skewing the public's perception of who's actually using/dealing. the black kids certainly aren't smoking more pot or carrying more pot than the white kids, they just stay on the hook for it while the white ones are let off.

whether or not they get stopped/searched more frequently or with/without probable cause may not even be that big a factor.
Posted by mr. herriman on February 24, 2010 at 3:56 PM · Report this
Local police departments my very well be the last bastion of racism in this country.
Posted by Brandon J. on February 24, 2010 at 4:09 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 39
@10 - Not everyone wants to go home just to get high. I'll occasionally pack a joint with me when I plan to go out after work. You can see how that would be handier than having to go home and come back.

Also, not everyone feels the need to get shit-ass wasted when they smoke. A few drags, and your evening picks right up. Plus, your liquor bill is lower.

I wouldn't feel comfortable smoking on the street without initiative 75. Or if I were black.
Posted by Free Lunch on February 24, 2010 at 6:08 PM · Report this
As a black guy in Seattle, I know more whites that smoke pot than I know blacks. As a black person, I'm know better than to walk around the street with any amount of weed on me. It just doesn't make sense to be stopped by the police and just "randomly" searched for any contraband.
Posted by apres_moi on February 24, 2010 at 7:46 PM · Report this
Eric Arrr 42

You ask as if you expect the police to willingly give up a part of their authority without a fight.

But just as I said a couple of weeks ago, as long as pot possession is a crime, the police will absolutely exploit any opportunity to make a pot arrest as a legal basis upon which to conduct search incident thereto. Even knowing that no charges will arise, they do this in the hope of busting pot arrestees for other crimes.

Don't expect the SPD to yeild to mere criticism. If you want to see this kind of behavior curbed, put your energy into supporting I-1068.
Posted by Eric Arrr on February 25, 2010 at 2:54 AM · Report this

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