Prosecutor Makes a Statement Regarding Prosecution of Marijuana Possession
Only a week into his temporary term as top prosecutor in Marion County, Ryan Mears is moving his office in a direction that could, for better or worse, have a significant impact on the community.
Mears announced Monday that his office will no longer prosecute certain marijuana possession offenses in Marion County. If a person possesses less than one ounce of marijuana, that person will not face formal charges from the prosecutor’s office, effective immediately. The policy is aimed at diverting resources to violent crimes, such as murder and sexual assault.
It’s a surprising, sweeping change. But Mears wouldn’t call it bold.
“I don’t think doing the right thing is a bold thing to do,” he told IndyStar. “I’ve been a prosecutor for 12 years, I have the experience of seeing what causes violent crime. And over the course of 12 years, I can tell you, small amounts of marijuana is not our problem.”
Mears said the decision only covers simple possession. He expects the one-ounce amount to differentiate users from dealers, which his office still plans to prosecute.
“We’re going to continue to prosecute individuals who use marijuana during the course of an accident or if they’re impaired for marijuana, those types of cases,” he said. “And also public consumption. I don’t want people to get the idea that if you walk down to the monument, people are free to light up in public. That’s not what this is about. This is about making sure that we treat everybody fairly.”
Acting Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears announced marijuana possession offenses will no longer be prosecuted in Marion County during a press conference on Monday, Sept., 30, 2019. “If it is less than one ounce of marijuana, we are not going to file that charge,” Mears said. “And that’s effective today.”
Police Departments Respond
While the prosecutor’s office may not be pursuing charges on low-level marijuana possession, possession of marijuana remains a crime in Indiana.
And police officers can still write a summons or arrest people who are committing that crime.
Lawrence police will continue with “business as usual,” said Lawrence Deputy Chief Gary Woodruff in a statement.
“Lawrence police officers, like most Indiana law enforcement officers, are able to use their discretion in taking misdemeanor enforcement action, just like the Marion County prosecutor can use prosecutorial discretion when making final charging decisions,” Woodruff said. “We’re continuing business as usual for the officers patrolling the streets and neighborhoods of Lawrence.”
That’s in line with how Speedway is handling the new policy, Speedway Lt. Jim Thiele said Monday evening. Southport police chief Tom Vaughn disagrees with the new policy, and will direct officers will enforce the law as written, according to a statement from the Southport Police Department.
IMPD Chief Bryan Roach was less clear in a public statement. Asked for comment on Monday, he said in a statement: “This morning’s announcement was the first the department had heard about this shift in policy. We are continuing to have discussions with our state, local and federal partners about next steps.”
In a memo sent to his officers, though, Roach emphasized that the new policy does not take precedent over Indiana law.
He encouraged officers to continue using their discretion on when to write a summons or make an arrest on marijuana possession.
The Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police supports Roach’s stance, said President Rick Snyder.
“While we recognize and value prosecutorial discretion, our law enforcement officers have significant concerns any time a single person elects to unilaterally not enforce a state law as a matter of practice or policy,” Snyder said in a statement. “We are attempting to better understand the basis for this decision and any potential unintended outcomes. In the interim, it is our understanding the IMPD Chief of Police has directed officers to continue to enforce the laws as proscribed by the State of Indiana and we strongly concur.”
It may not ultimately matter what actions the officers take.
“I can’t tell IMPD what to do,” Mears told IndyStar. “But the decision to file charges or not is something that’s up to the discretion of the Marion County prosecutor’s office. And we don’t believe that’s good public policy.”
More on the New Policy
At a news conference on Monday morning, and in an interview with IndyStar, Mears stressed that his policy is not an endorsement of marijuana use. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that criminalizing use of the drug does not address the city’s “terrible violence issue,” Mears said. He believes there’s no direct link between simple possession and violent crime.
“Let’s get those officers involved in trying to track down the people who are involved in non-fatal shootings and homicides, as opposed to worrying about basic possession of marijuana cases.”
Mears says this is the first time the Marion County prosecutor’s office has decided to stop prosecuting a drug offense, but the policy is in line with how the office has been treating marijuana cases in the past few years. In 2017, the office dismissed 65% of marijuana possession cases, Mears said. Last year, the number rose to 74%. So far this year, that number is 81%, he said.
Mears believes that criminalizing these offenses “disproportionately impacts people of color,” and is a burden on the jails.
“It clogs up the court calendars, and it disrupts people’s lives,” he said. “When you get arrested and you get charged, and you have to come Downtown, that’s a stressful situation for anyone. It makes people miss work. They have to pay fees, or pay for an attorney. If we’re going to end up dismissing 81 or 82% of the cases, it does not make sense to file a case.”
Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal, who endorsed Mears as prosecutor, said in a statement Monday that low-level, nonviolent offenders often remain jailed for several days, “at a significant cost to taxpayers.”
“The new jail, currently under construction as a part of the Justice Complex, is not designed to hold many more inmates than are currently held between the combined public and private jails today. City leaders have repeatedly stated that we need to find ways to use fewer jail cells, and not more.”
To accomplish that, Forestal said, officials have to change arresting procedures, which includes diverting addicts and the mentally ill into the healthcare system.
“As Marion County Sheriff, I welcome Prosecutor Ryan Mears’ decision not to file charges for possession of marijuana,” Forestal said.
There are currently about 393 pending marijuana-related cases (misdemeanors), Mears said. Of those cases, he said, the ones that meet the criteria will be dismissed.
Mears: It’s About Fairness, Not Politics
Mears, who stepped into the role of prosecutor after Terry Curry stepped down last week, said he’s unconcerned with how the announcement will affect his bid to have the position permanently.
“This is not a political decision,” he said. “This is a moral decision. And I have a moral responsibility to make sure everybody is treated fairly under the law. And the continuing enforcement of marijuana laws is unjust and unfair to people of color. So I’m not going to do it.”
The decision was applauded Monday by Mears’ challenger, Tim Moriarty, an attorney working as special counsel to Mayor Joe Hogsett.
“Truly reforming our county’s criminal justice system will require a holistic approach, and there’s no doubt that the enforcement of marijuana possession charges have created inequity — especially for communities of color,” Moriarty’s campaign said in a statement.
Moriarty said that if elected Marion County prosecutor, he would keep the policy change in place.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said in a statement that she has begun drafting legislation for the 2020 session to decriminalize marijuana possession in Indiana.
“It is past time for our jail cells to be cleared of Hoosiers who have committed no other crime than be in possession of a harmless substance, that actually has real medical benefits,” the statement said.
Mears acknowledged that making marijuana legal in Indiana is ultimately lawmakers’ decision. He says his job is to prioritize what his office will prosecute.
“I woke up today, and there were two murders last night,” he said. “That’s entirely too much.”
Ann Sutton, chief counsel at the Marion County Public Defender Agency, welcomed the news from the prosecutor’s office.
“There’s plenty of more serious things that we need to be dealing with and low-level marijuana use is not one of them,” Sutton said. “Less than an ounce is just personal recreational use.”
Hogsett, who has endorsed Moriarty, appeared to be caught off-guard by Mears’ announcement. A spokeswoman said the “abrupt announcement” needs “further discussion.”
“Over the last three years, Mayor Hogsett has focused on reforming our community’s criminal justice system, prioritizing treatment for those suffering from challenges related to mental health and addiction,” said Taylor Shaffer, a Hogsett spokeswoman. “While today’s abrupt announcement by the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office necessitates further discussion between criminal justice partners, it’s clear that our community’s focus should be on holding perpetrators of violent crime accountable and keeping those who don’t belong in jail, out.”
State Sen. Jim Merritt, a Republican mayoral candidate who endorsed Mears for prosecutor, said in a statement released by his campaign that he supports “any effort to review the fairness of our criminal justice system.”
Council President Vop Osili, a Democrat, acknowledged his surprise in a statement released Monday evening.
“The process of criminal justice reform is one to which I have long been deeply committed. Today’s unanticipated announcement by the acting Marion County Prosecutor illustrates the role prosecutorial discretion can play in that larger process,” Osili said. “As council president, I look forward to collaborating with our law enforcement partners and Council colleagues on the implications of today’s announcement, and continuing to work with Marion County residents and stakeholders as we pursue meaningful criminal justice reform together.
‘Lax’ Drug Enforcement
In a statement, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill said he’s “concerned” that the policy will attract to Indianapolis people seeking communities where drug enforcement is “lax.”
“It seems to me a curious strategy to put out a welcome mat for lawbreakers in a community already facing challenges related to crime, homelessness and other social problems stemming from drug abuse,” the statement said.
Hill said he respects the fact that prosecutors have “absolute discretion,” in deciding when to file criminal charges. He added, though, that prosecutors typically do this on a case-by-case basis, “rather than proclaiming that in all cases they will ignore a particular state law not to their liking.”
When asked if he anticipates any harmful effects from the policy, Mears told IndyStar he believes it will have a positive impact on public safety — not just by focusing more resources on violence, but also by possibly preventing other incidents that could happen as a result of prosecuting marijuana possession.
“(Drivers) take off from the police because they don’t want to get arrested for marijuana,” Mears said. “You have people who start moving around in the car. Are they reaching to hide the marijuana that’s inside the vehicle? That makes the officers nervous, like they’re reaching for a gun.
“And so to me, this is going to lessen the confrontation that’s going to be involved in some of these stops, because people now know that if it is a small amount of marijuana, that they are not going to be at risk for going to jail that night.”