RHODE ISLAND: In the four months since Rhode Island became the 15th state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, the police have written about 850 tickets for what is now classified as a civil violation — more than 100 to juveniles.
The cases, which are being adjudicated at the state’s Traffic Tribunal, have resulted in tens of thousands of fines being assessed; the money is earmarked for state coffers.
From April 1 through the end of July, magistrates have levied more than $110,000 in fines on 663 adults and 92 juveniles who have been found to have possessed an ounce or less of non-medical marijuana.
However, only about $61,000 has been collected.
Many of the people issued summonses have not paid their fines by mail or come to court, so they are found “guilty in absentia.” Some people who came to court and pleaded guilty or were found guilty after a trial have not paid either.
Traffic Tribunal Chief Magistrate William R. Guglietta, a former state prosecutor who for three years headed the attorney general’s narcotics unit, says he is bowled over by the number of people ticketed under the new law –– which does not apply to people authorized, with state-issued cards, to use marijuana for medicinal purposes or to grow marijuana as a medical-marijuana caregiver.
“To see this many cases, I am surprised,” he said in an interview at the court. He said the large number of tickets may be due to the fact that “there’s a certain simplicity to it now.”
The police use the same universal summons form that they use for issuing traffic violations. It tells the person what his or her court date is, “then they come here to get it handled.”
The police don’t have to wait six months for a toxicology test to be done so they can build a criminal case, Guglietta said. “Now we can handle cases within 30 days and we’re done.”
According to figures provided by the state’s judiciary, the largest single source of the marijuana tickets is the state police. Often, Guglietta said, the marijuana is found as a result of a traffic stop for something else. He said he has found that the police are dismissing some of the summonses if a defendant agrees to plead guilty to refusing to take a breath test in connection with suspicion of driving under the influence, or admits guilt to more serious drug charges in the Superior Court.
Police in Providence, Warwick, Cranston and Pawtucket have issued about 28 percent of the tickets.
While the police for the state Department of Environmental Management, which patrols state parks and beaches, issued 21 summonses, the police at the University of Rhode Island aren’t devoting much time to this endeavor. They issued just 3 of the 746 tickets given to adults. The state police have issued 135 tickets.
Guglietta says he has found that most people who are given marijuana tickets are “interested in just getting rid of the case. They’re willing to pay the fine and move on.” About 90 percent of those who appear in his court plead guilty, he says. Only about 10 percent choose trials. The trials, he said, typically last just 30 to 45 minutes. The level of proof is “by clear and convincing evidence” rather than the more stringent “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
If offenders don’t pay the $150 fine as assessed by the court, it increases to $300 after 30 days and to $600 after 90 days. Fines increased in 147 of the 851 cases over the four months because no payment was made within 30 days.