Reading Between The Lines: Over 75-Percent Of Pot-Smoking Tickets Have Defaulted

While the news emerged in a slightly awkward fashion, yesterday afternoon new Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole revealed that one cop - and only one cop - was responsible for roughly 80-percent of the pot tickets issued in Seattle during the first half of the year -- a staggering 66 of 83 bearing the officer’s signature. Through a statement eventually posted to SPD’s “Blotter” blog (though the story was broken first by Dominic Holden at The Stranger), O’Toole indicated that the department’s Office of Professional Accountability is currently investigating the matter, and that the unnamed cop - who apparently had a penchant for cc’ing “Petey Holmes” on the bottom of his pot tickets and was also known to complain about how “silly” Washington’s pot laws are - has been taken off patrol duty while that investigation plays out.

The discovery came as staff combed through the first biannual report on marijuana enforcement in Seattle, an exercise specifically designed to catch blaring irregularities and fuck-ups like this. The mandated marijuana enforcement report had already determined that the pot tickets doled out this year by SPD had been done so disproportionately, with African Americans receiving a troubling 36 percent of them. This, despite the fact that African Americans make up a mere eight percent of the city’s population.

The enforcement report, thank goodness, was required under a provision included in the ordinance passed by the City Council last year that made public weed smoking a ticket-able offense. Pete Holmes pushed for the ordinance, and, by requiring the report, the council sought to safeguard against abuses just like the ones that have apparently been found.

Today, as he no doubt felt compelled to do, City Attorney Pete Holmes, who, again, championed the smoking-in-public law, issued a statement of his own. The longtime pot-legalization proponent - who has been known to wear festive shirts while speaking at Hempfest and, perhaps even more amusing, got so caught up in the moment of Seattle’s first pot store opening that he broke City Hall rules by bringing his newly acquired weed back to his office - sought to clarify why it’s important for Seattle to this law on its books. “It’s about getting people to stop smoking marijuana in public, especially in crowded areas and places where families and children congregate,” Holmes’ statement reads in part. The City Attorney goes on to say he’s “absolutely concerned about the numbers in the report showing disproportionality.”

As well he should be. As well we all should be.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the full scope of what’s going on here - and exactly what the enforcement report makes clear. Yes, this is about an angry cop indulging in a stupid vendetta with his ticket book. And, yes, more importantly, this is about the way a well-meaning law pushed by a progressive dude like Holmes can have troubling racial implications. And, of course, it’s about how SPD still has a long way to go when it comes to fixing its history of racially “biased policing.”

But there’s another issue at play here, and it’s one the city has long struggled to deal with in a few key spots. It’s about socio-economics. More bluntly, it’s about homelessness downtown, and the path Seattle chooses to take in dealing with it.

As Holden’s reporting for The Stranger makes clear (which is very important), “The only locations police have handed out the tickets issued this year” are on Third Avenue downtown, Victor Steinbrueck Park, and Occidental Park. All of these places, as Holden notes, are locations where the homeless are known to congregate (to the displeasure of local business owners and uptight radio show hosts just trying to take their kid to a ballgame).

Outside of downtown, meanwhile and to no great surprise, zero pot tickets have been issued.

In other words: So far, when enforced by SPD, Seattle’s smoking in public laws are acting as little more than another pointless, ticketed infraction authorities can use to make life miserable for homeless people downtown. In practice, it’s not much different than the sit/lie law that prevents the homeless from sleeping in public places during the day, or the city’s public drinking/urination ordinances. It’s one more tool - a ticket criminalizing homelessness that will likely never be paid, to be exact - that can be used to dissuade an indigent person from hanging out downtown. As the AP has already noted, “about 46 percent of those ticketed told police they lived in a homeless shelter, transitional housing or had addresses associated with homeless services.”

As we’ve previously reported, Seattle Municipal Court records for 2012 indicate that police issued 551 drinking in public citations that year. Of those 551 tickets, 470 - or just over 85-percent -ended up in default, meaning the person on the receiving end never paid or responded. As everyone seems to agree, this is largely because those who receive public drinking citations are poor or homeless. They can’t pay these tickets, or simply don’t.

So what about the smoking in public citations issued in the first six months of this year? Well, according to Gary Ireland, the public information officer for Seattle Municipal Court, from January 1 through June 30, 2014, the Court, indeed, has a record of 83 civil infraction filings from SPD for smoking in public. Of those, Ireland says 63 have defaulted.

For those playing at home, that’s over 75 percent of them.

“There tends to be a pretty low response rate,” John Schochet, the deputy chief of staff at the City Attorney’s Office, has told Seattle Weekly of public drinking citations issued by SPD.

Based on the first six months of enforcement, it would seem the same pattern holds true for smoking in public citations.

In a report packed with troubling findings, the way Seattle’s smoking in public law can be used to target the poor and homeless should not be overlooked. For his part, it’s a problem Holmes does seem to acknowledge in today’s statement. “I’m also concerned about inconsistent citywide enforcement with both warnings and tickets across the five precincts, which may also be an underlying factor in the first report,” Holmes says. “I support enforcing the law, I support warning people before ticketing them and only issuing a ticket if the warning doesn’t work, and I support spreading enforcement efforts equitably across the City.”

Spreading enforcement efforts equitably across the city, in this case, means not just writing tickets to the poor or homeless people downtown.

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