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Why Cite-and-Release for Pot Busts Didn't Start in Dallas Yesterday

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Five and a half months ago — after years of trying — the Dallas City Council finally passed cite-and-release for low-level marijuana possession and set an Oct. 1 start date for the program. But it's Oct. 2, and anyone stopped for possessing less than 4 ounces of pot was is subject to arrest.

What happened?

The Dallas County Commissioner's Court, which has to provide the cash for the courts that will be set up for those who are cited and released, hasn't signed off on funding for the plan. This has left cite-and-release in bureaucratic limbo. Without a county mechanism for accepting and processing pot possession citations — which carry the same weight as a possession arrest without the initial night in jail — the program can't move forward.

The driving force behind the court's indecision, as he has been so often in the last three decades, is County Commissioner John Wiley Price.

Price, who did not return the Observer's request for an interview for this story, wrote a letter to the city of Dallas and the Dallas Police Department last month explaining that he has reservations about both the fairness and   costs of implementing the ordinance. After the letter became public, Price explained his reasoning in a lengthy Facebook post.

"I have never used marijuana but the substance was not my main concern. The disposition of justice, as always, was the main issue I was confronting," Price said, arguing that cite-and-release will be unfair to his constituents who don't live in the city of Dallas. "We already know that statistically residents of Highland Park are treated differently than Hamilton Park; those same statistics would indicate that the level of drug usage is similar in each."

The commissioner also expressed concern with an issue raised by Jamie Spencer, an Austin attorney who's represented cited and released clients for the better part of a decade, in an interview with the Observer this spring: Many people hearing about cite-and-release equate it with decriminalization. It isn't.

Cite-and-release comes with all the same potential consequences — up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine — as an arrest for marijuana possession. "The name of the program sounds as if it makes this a process that does not require an arrest or dispensation of a case," Price said. "And that’s not the truth."

There is hope, despite opposition, that cite-and-release will go into effect by Dec. 1, according to Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia.

While Garcia acknowledges Price's concerns, she said she believes cite-and-release is worth doing.

"Are there still some issues? Yes," Garcia said. "We need to try it, though. Without trying, we don't know where the problems could be. More importantly, for my personal perspective, less people in jail can only help."

In order to make the program fairer to those arrested for marijuana possession outside of Dallas County, Garcia and Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, a supporter of cite-and-release, have proposed that personal recognizance bonds be issued to those ineligible for cite-and-release. Personal recognizance bonds allow those arrested to get out of jail without posting bail but still require a person to go through the standard booking procedure.

"With the PR bonds, we might be able to implement this countywide," Garcia says. "That's the second part of the process that I feel is going to help."

Garcia, co-chair of the county's criminal justice advisory board, said she believes the commissioner's court will agree to fund cite-and-release at its Oct. 17 meeting, when county staff provides a final estimated cost of implementing the program. If that happens, cite-and-release will begin in the city of Dallas on Dec. 1.

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