Huntsville considers tickets, rather than arrests for marijuana possession

By Ashley Remkus, The Associated Press

The Huntsville City Council, while looking at racial disparities in arrest rates, discussed allowing police officers to ticket people for misdemeanor marijuana possession, rather than taking them to jail.

Representatives of police, city court and the city attorney’s office spoke in favor of the proposal at a work session tonight. The council does not vote or take action at work sessions.

Trey Riley, the city attorney, said the change would save people money, as they wouldn’t have to pay bail or impound fees for their vehicles. He said for people who can’t afford those fees, an arrest can also result in lost employment. And their mugshots are displayed on the Madison County jail website.

“I call it almost like a phantom prosecution before we even get to the issue of whether someone is guilty or innocent of the charge,” he said. “They have already suffered all of these punitive elements. And that’s I think the thing this type of arrangement that we’re discussing is designed to combat — to allow that injustice to be corrected, especially when you’re dealing with more minor offenses and offenses that do not involve danger to the public that would necessitate custodial arrest.”

Yet, even if the council decides to vote in favor of the change at a regular meeting, it would not happen immediately. Under Alabama law, attorneys for the city said, Huntsville would have to ask state lawmakers to pass a bill allowing the change.

City officials also repeatedly pointed out that the change being discussed would not decriminalize or legalize marijuana possession in the city and would not change the penalties for anyone who is convicted. Marijuana possession would still be a crime — a Class A misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to one year in jail and up to $6,000 in fines.

The change would not apply to felony possession cases.

“It’s not about decriminalizing possession of marijuana,” Riley said.

DeWayne McCarver, a deputy chief for the Huntsville Police Department, said that allowing officers the option to issue tickets instead of making arrests would save them time and let them spend more time patrolling. He offered a “conservative estimate” that each arrest takes an officer off the street for two hours to book the person in jail.

“This is a win for all of us if we have this option,” he said.

Lonzo Robinson, the presiding judge in Huntsville, said the change would not affect how the cases are handled in city court. He said whether a person is booked into jail or charged with a crime via a ticket, also called a citation or summons, the court will treat the cases the same. He did note, though, that court costs are about $75 less for people who are ticketed rather than taken to jail.

Devyn Keith, the city councilman representing north Huntsville, is leading the effort to make the change. He displayed arrest data that shows that Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Huntsville than white people. Despite accounting for about 30 percent of the city’s population, according to Census data, Black people account for more than 70 percent of marijuana possession arrests.

From 2017-2021, Huntsville police arrested 4,080 people for marijuana possession, according to the stats Keith displayed at the work session. Of those, 2,879 were Black, while 1,183 were white.

“When statistics like this stick out, the question is what efficient processes can we go through to diminish the punitive effects that it seems the law is having on a very specific population,” Keith said.