City Hall

McGinn and Holmes Correct the Record on Pot Arrests

By Erica C. Barnett September 1, 2010

This post has been updated with information from the mayor's office and the city attorney's office.

Mayor Mike McGinn confirmed yesterday that the Seattle Police Department is not---contrary to a recent story in The Stranger---arresting people for marijuana possession, absent any other charge, at an "astronomically higher rate" than in the past.

The paper claimed that 147 people were "arrested" this year for pot possession alone, absent any other violation.

In reality, only six people in the first four months of this year year were even cited (as opposed to arrested) for pot alone, and those incidents "all involved individuals openly smoking marijuana in front of a police officer," according to an FAQ compiled by the mayor's office. The rest were stopped for separate offenses such as outstanding warrants (which wouldn't spur an additional citation) and traffic violations (which aren't criminal offenses).

Moreover, according to information the city attorney's office sent PubliColaof the larger group of individuals who were cited for pot and another offense, only seven were actually arrested during those four months---again, contrary to the Stranger's claim that "Seattle police are arresting more people on low-level marijuana charges this year than any year in the last decade."

Additionally, city attorney Pete Holmes' office has not pursued a single pot-only case this year, and has dropped all charges in all but one incident (that incident involved three separate charges.)

As reported earlier this week, the Stranger's erroneous numbers were apparently based on a misunderstanding of the Seattle Police Department's new reporting system, which automates case referrals, so that, for example, if police pick someone up for an outstanding warrant and find marijuana in their pocket, they'll automatically refer the pot case as well. City attorney Pete Holmes has said he will not prosecute pot possession in such cases.

"What we know about marijuana is that, by law, it's the lowest law enforcement priority of the Seattle Police Department," McGinn said in response to PubliCola's question. "One of the things to understand is that we have a reporting system... and there's been a change in how [cases are] filed. Simple reporting may show an uptick ... but that doesn't mean the person got arrested for it. If they find marijuana, they are bound to report it."

However, McGinn added, "I don't believe we are seeing more arrests. I think police are taking seriously the fact that it's the lowest law enforcement priority. That said, it is still against the law."

McGinn concluded: "You'd do everyone a favor if you don't light up in front of a police officer."

UPDATE: According to a fact sheet put together by McGinn's office, police officers "rarely" cite people solely for marijuana posession.
Although it may appear that marijuana was the “sole charge” in a lot of incident reports, it often looks that way because the reason for the stop was either a traffic citation (which isn’t a criminal charge), or to execute a warrant. If someone is arrested because of an outstanding warrant, the offense for which the warrant was issued isn’t a new violation, so review of the City Attorney’s records would cause one to conclude (incorrectly) that marijuana was the only criminal violation at issue.

Officers are obligated to report every incident completely and correctly---including incidents in which they find pot on someone cited for a separate violation---and they have no discretion in deciding whether to refer a case for prosecution.
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