Beware the Unintended Consequences of Cite-and-Release

The Dallas City Council passed cite-and-release for marijuana possession Wednesday, but that doesn't mean anyone is getting a ticket for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana. It might feel like it – you get stopped, cops find pot and you drive away with a piece of paper from the cop's ticket book – but getting busted for weed possession in Dallas on October 1 is still going to carry the same potential of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine as the day before.

"The number one misconception [about cite-and-release] is that it somehow changes it to a Class C, traffic-ticket level offense," Jamie Spencer, an Austin attorney who's represented cited and released clients for the better part of a decade, says. "It's an improvement on automatically arresting everybody immediately – the person will have to go through the arrest process a month from now – but basically all of the things that would have happened to them had then been arrested that night will happen to them."

Not helping, of course, is the fact that people call it a ticket, including the councilmen who pushed the change the hardest:

In reality, the piece of paper people busted with pot will receive is summons, not a ticket. Those given one still have to show up to a court date, go in front of a judge, see pre-trial services and have a bond set, Spencer says.

"They may have been driving to work on Monday morning," Spencer says. "It's definitely preferable that they get handed a summons and have a month to come up with an excuse for missing work."

For people who don't show up to their court date, consequences can stack up quickly. While failing to appear to contest or pay a traffic ticket is just another Class C misdemeanor, failing to show up after a cite-and-release summons is a Class A misdemeanor.

"It's not like marijuana smokers, I'm not saying this about all of them, but on average they're not known to be the most responsible, calendaring people you've ever met," Spencer says. "Does everybody take it seriously? No, but how is that any different from arresting them at the time, releasing them on a personal bond and telling them to come back to county court?"

Spencer, who supports cite-and-release, but would like to see full marijuana legalization in Texas, says some of his clients have fared worse with cite-and-release than they would've otherwise.

Before 2007, the year when the state legislature allowed cite-and-release and Austin implemented it, Spencer routinely heard two kinds of stories. In the first story, he said, cops who pulled drivers over with a small amount of marijuana often threw it away and didn't write the driver any sort of citation. In the second story, the one he said clients told him more often, cops who found someone in possession of a small bag of marijuana would write the person a possession of drug paraphernalia citation for the bag and ignore the pot so the cops could avoid the hassle of dragging the person to jail. In 2017 Travis County, cops don't have that hassle to worry about.

"That no longer happens. The reason is that it's just as easy for the cop to say 'Why don't I just give you a possession of marijuana citation?" because it's accurate," Spencer says. "I have seen more small, and I mean very small, amounts in marijuana cases since cite-and-release has been put in place than I did prior to it."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young