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Marion County to no longer prosecute simple marijuana possession cases

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- The Marion County Prosecutor's office announced Monday the county will no longer prosecute simple possession of marijuana cases.

Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears says cases involving less than an ounce of marijuana won't be prosecuted.

The rule is effective today.

"This is something that has been on our minds and discussed internally for the last couple of years," said Mears. "We have discussed this issue with different law enforcement partners...we think this is going to have a number of benefits to the community."

Mears says his office wants police officers to prioritize violent crime, and prosecuting minor marijuana cases takes away from that mission. He also pointed out that the prosecution of marijuana cases have had a disproportionate impact on people of color.

"We believe that is a wrong that we need to right," he said.

Possessing under one ounce classifies as a class B misdemeanor, which is why that amount was chosen. Possessing an ounce or more classifies for a dealing marijuana charge, which the county will continue to prosecute.

"With that quantity of marijuana, you're no longer talking about personal use," said Mears. "You're talking about individuals who intend to distribute that marijuana."

Mears said they looked at the impact on public safety when it comes to these cases. As many as 81% of these cases were being dismissed already.

"Just because you're arrested on a B misdemeanor of marijuana, it does not mean that you're going to be a robber or a murderer," he said.

One Indianapolis defense attorney said he doesn’t see many misdemeanor marijuana cases in court.

“If its your first offense, its very unlikely that you’re gonna see any time in jail,” said Clayton Morgan. “You may get arrested the day of your offense, but most of the those on the first offense are gonna result in a dismissal probably through a diversion program which you jump through hoops and hoops and pay a fine and they dismiss the case.

“I see this more as a signal to the state legislature as a signal to, ‘Hey we would like to see this charge, this criminal offense, be eliminated altogether.’”

Morgan said that if the prosecutor has a blanket policy of refusing to try minor marijuana possession cases, he wonders what will happen to evidence of other crimes that may be discovered during a search that began because of a misdemeanor pot violation.

“Okay, you’re saying, ‘You’re not gonna prosecute this crime and that’s what you pulled me over for, or my client over for, and now you want a charge on some other thing that you found while you were investigating a crime that you knew you weren’t gonna prosecute?’” he said.

Mears said his announcement would not preclude police officers from enforcing the minor marijuana possession law or conducting searches or filing other charges based on the suspicion of misdemeanor pot possession, but rather, his office would most likely choose not to prosecute the minor charge.

The rule does not affect public consumption. Someone walking down the street smoking marijuana would still be prosecuted regardless of the amount they possess. The same goes for impaired driving and cases involving people under 18 years old.

There are 393 pending simple possession of marijuana cases the County is currently reviewing. Those cases will be handled in accordance with this policy unless there are additional criminal factors.

Mears says his office will be partnering with agencies to help identify people with previous convictions and guilty pleas for simple marijuana possession to get their records expunged.

Marion County is the first in the state to take this action.

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Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett's office issued this statement:

“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. 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.”

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill issued this statement:

“I respect and support the fact that prosecutors have absolute discretion in deciding when to file criminal charges and how to allocate their resources. Typically, though, prosecutors carefully exercise this discretion on a case-by-case basis rather than proclaiming that in all cases they will ignore a particular state law not to their liking. I am concerned that this proclamation in Marion County will attract to Indianapolis people with a particular interest in 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.”

Marion County Sheriff Kerry Forestal issued this statement:

“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, we have to change arresting procedures, which includes the diversion of addicts and the mentally ill into the health care system. As Marion County Sheriff, I welcome Prosecutor Ryan Mears’ decision not to file charges for Possession of Marijuana. Working together, we must commit to having the dangerous people in Jail, and focus our efforts on Marion County’s most violent criminals.”

Marion County prosecutor candidate Tim Moriarty issued this statement:

"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. While I appreciate the Marion County Prosecutor's Office's abrupt change of course on this policy today, I believe it is critical we treat this step forward as the continuation of a journey, not the end.

"If elected Marion County Prosecutor on Saturday, I would keep this change in policy in place and work alongside the community to analyze its effects. But I do believe this new approach will only be successful if it is implemented alongside significant investments in treatment for substance abuse and mental health challenges.

Righting the wrongs of the past will require more than the exercise of prosecutorial discretion -- it will require an office focused on prosecutorial action on behalf of our community."

The Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) issued this statement:

“Today we learned of the decision of the Acting Prosecutor to not prosecute misdemeanor violations of possession of marijuana in Marion County.

Our collective rank and file had no prior indication of this decision and we are trying to ascertain if others within the criminal justice community and city county government were aware of this move beforehand.

Such an across the board decision not only impacts our local community, but has implications for jurisdictions throughout our region and state.

While we recognize and value prosecutorial discretion, our law enforcement officers have significant concerns anytime a single person elects to unilaterally not enforce a state law as a matter of practice or policy.

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.”

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