Flagler County’s attempt to adopt a civil citation program that would decriminalize the first-time possession in small amounts has approximated the highs and lows of a roller-coaster, if not of a person experiencing the highs and lows of drug use.
That effort appeared to be dying in mid-May. County Commission Chairman Barbara Revels salvaged it in mid-June. But by month’s end, it was teetering again as two Palm Coast City Council members in turn ridiculed and dismembered it, and a third declared himself for an “all or nothing” approach: If Palm Coast doesn’t go along with the county’s proposal, it would be all but dead, as its application would be limited to a minority portion of the county. Already, Bunnell has declared itself against it, and Flagler Beach is on the fence.
On Wednesday, the Public Safety Coordinating Council, where the proposal mostly originated and developed into its current form, will decide whether to formally recommend it or reject it. If it recommends it, the proposal will then go to the county commission for approval, and from there to the county’s cities for their approval or rejection. Its chances look poor at the moment. But Revels and Manfre are confident it may yet succeed.
“In the case of Palm Coast, maybe from that meeting that tells you that there is a 3-2 vote to adopt it?” Revels said, referring to the June 28 meeting when council members Steven Nobile and Bill McGuire manhandled the proposal like DEA agents on a tear. “So I don’t really know, and if at that point in time we have a county ordinance and we have let’s say two cities in and one out, or something like that, I would imagine again it’s always about the law officers’ ability of discretion.” Revels still thought that even absent Palm Coast’s participation, the ordinance could still be effective because the sheriff’s authority extends across the county.
“I’m in no way, shape or form in support of this,” Palm Coast council member Steven Nobile says.
The proposal is the joint work of Revels and Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, originally with solid support from Public Defender Jim Purdy. They want to adopt the sort of de-criminalization ordinance several other counties have adopted, among them Volusia, Broward and Miami-Dade. The idea is to keep first-time offenders from having a criminal record because of minor pot possession. Such a record has ruinous effects on individuals’ ability to get jobs, secure loans because their credit may be jeopardized, keep their driver’s license, among a host of other setbacks. A civil judgment, like a traffic fine, does not block all those avenues.
The Public Safety Coordinating Council gathers once a month all the county’s law enforcement chiefs or their representatives, including the State Attorney’s Office, representatives of the judiciary (including judges on occasion), the public defender, city police chiefs, social agency heads, and the chairman of the county commission, who also chairs the council—in this case, Revels, who has adroitly kept the proposal from dying. While there is little disagreement with the proposal in principle, there’s been disagreement on details, including what would define a “small amount” of marijuana and what the fine should be.
The original proposal was to set the amount threshold at 20 grams, which prevails in other counties that have adopted civil citations. Attempts to reduce the threshold to 10 grams failed. It stayed at 20. The first-time fine, however, would be $250, rather than $100. And the sheriff’s attempt to extend the civil citation program to other victimless or minor crimes failed, with the state attorney’s office in staunch opposition, with one exception: underage drinking. That could still result in a civil citation instead of criminal arrest.
When Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts summarized the proposal to his colleagues on the council on June 28, Nobile’s and McGuire’s reaction was swift and shrill.
“I can’t believe we would sit in a room with law enforcement and use the term victimless crime when it comes to marijuana,” Nobile, who’d described himself as “steaming” while hearing the mayor’s summary, said. “I mean, they just don’t understand. Are we that oblivious to where this stuff comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s transported? There are victims lying in the fields all from here down to South America and across. This is not victimless, whether you have 20 grams or whether you have 20 pounds you’re supporting that industry, and by supporting that industry there are victims.”
The assurance that the ultimate decision on whether to give a civil citation or carry out an arrest rested with officers’ discretion didn’t sway Nobile. “We’re turning policemen into judges,” he said. “Their position is law enforcement, not to sit there and decide, well, is this, what kind of crime is this—No. You did something wrong, you’re arrested, and now we’re going to put you in front of a court whether it’s a judge or peers. That’s the process. I believe that we’re making a mess here.”
“I’m in no way, shape or form in support of this,” he continued, adding: “And don’t quote what I’m saying as whether I am for or opposed to making marijuana legal. I don’t care. If that’s what the people want, make it legal, this goes away, we don’t have to deal with this stuff.”
McGuire was Nobile’s rare ally on this issue: “I agree completely with Mr. Nobile,” he said. “It’s either legal or it’s not. If it’s not legal and you do it, you’re a criminal, period. I don’t agree with different varying degrees of drug usage. A drug is a drug and until it stops becoming a drug, the use or possession of it is illegal and should be punished by law.” He acknowledged that cops have always had latitude in deciding whether to cite individuals, but that applies more to speeding than to drugs.
“I don’t think that needs to be put into writing,” McGuire said. “I think it’s an understanding amongst police officers that hey, you have to exercise some judgment here as to whether or not you’re going to write a ticket, just if somebody is speeding and you decide to let them have a warning. That’s already at their discretion. But as far as marijuana and underage drinking goes, unless you’re going to change the law, then enforce the law.”
Netts has said all along that he considers the civil citation program a reasonable approach, but he favors its application statewide. If it’s to be enacted, it should be a uniform state law, he said, never fully committing to a more localized approach in the absence of a state law. No such state law is likely any time soon. Council member Jason DeLorenzo said he favored an “all or nothing” approach (countywide or none at all), while council member Heidi Shipley said nothing. From that, Revels extrapolated the possibility of a 3-2 vote in favor of the ordinance.
“It would have been nice,” Revels said, “if maybe McGuire and Nobile would have said, however if this was this in here,’ that would have been something where the public safety coordinating council could recommend to the county commission for an ordinance that this is what public safety brought up and here are two comments we might want to look at changing.”
Manfre was also optimistic. “It takes three votes. They’re only two votes,” he said of Nobile and McGuire. “They have not been privy to the conversations at the Public Safety Council, so I’d like an opportunity to be in front of them and explain it from my point of view. I don’t disagree with the premise that the mayor has said, that the best solution to this is a statewide adult civil citation program. I absolutely agree with that, and I would still rather prefer that we are considering an adult civil citation program as opposed to where we are right now. But I will take anything, and then build on it. If this does nothing other than open this conversation and inform people on the issues, then it was I believe time well spent. But as long as I’m the sheriff or a community member, I will push for an adult civil citation program.”
The Palm Coast City Council has not yet extended an invitation to the sheriff to address the proposal in person. That may follow the safety council’s decision on Wednesday, Manfre said. “Once we have some sort of consensus on what it is we agree to, then I think it will be the right time to go to the cities.”
Manfre added: “This is the legislative process, democracy, the republican form of government, can look ugly at times but this is what we need to do. We need to come to consensus as a community. As a sheriff I cannot just grant edicts, all I can do is express my view of this particular aspect and hopefully I can influence some ideas. It’s an idea that I think whose time has come. If nothing else maybe we galvanize support to put pressure on our legislators to make sure there’s an adult civil citation program available in our upcoming legislature, which I will do as sheriff.”
The Public Safety Coordinating Council meets Wednesday, July 13, at 8:45 a.m. in the main conference room at the Emergency Operations Center, behind the Government Services Building. The meeting is open to the public.