By Bob Young
Seattle police officers soon will have authority to write $27 tickets for consuming pot in public, similar to the sanctions for publicly drinking alcohol.
But don't expect an avalanche of tickets from the cops who gave out bags of Doritos, with educational warnings, at Hempfest. The law unanimously approved by the City Council on Monday calls for police to give warnings "whenever possible" before issuing fines.
The new fines take effect 30 days after the legislation is signed by the mayor.
"Everyone's probably going to get several free passes," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department. "We want to be generous."
Under the new law it's likely that officers would fine only chronic offenders who ignore warnings, Whitcomb explained. He said giving warnings won't be a hassle for police, and called them a good thing.
Whitcomb said beat officers patrolling places like downtown's Westlake Park get to know some people as fixtures. If officers find someone consuming after several warnings, then they'll conclude that warnings aren't working and will issue a fine.
"The beauty of it is going to be relying on officer knowledge and discretion, and they know the lay of the land and who the violators are, and this will give them a tool for enforcement," Whitcomb said.
Leniency about pot smoking is already part of the Police Department's DNA, he said, after voters approved Initiative 75 in 2003 making pot-possession laws the city's lowest law-enforcement priority. He predicted that enforcement would be similar to what occurs for public drinking at tailgating parties before Seahawks games, which is focused on egregious violations.
"I'm pretty sure we don't have a heavy hand when it comes to drinking in public. This will be similar," he said. Except, that when officers write pot fines they'll also be asked to report race and gender of the violator and location of the public consumption. That's because arrests for pot possession have disproportionately impacted people of color, according to an ACLU study.
Police are required to report details of pot fines to the City Council every six months. By tracking data on fines, the City Council hopes to evaluate whether the law is being equitably enforced.
The city is able to impose fines because the voter-approved legal-weed law prohibits consumption in view of the general public. By creating a Seattle law, city officials will be able to split ticket revenues with the state.
But in a financial-impact note to the legislation, city analysts said they couldn't predict with confidence the way people would respond to warnings and how many violations would be written. Analysts predicted no appreciable impact on the city's $1 billion general-fund budget.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, a sponsor of the new law, initially had proposed a $50 fine. But Councilmember Nick Licata wanted to make the fine mirror the $27 penalty for public alcohol consumption. Holmes said he supported the reduced fine, emphasizing that it's in the best interest of the new law to enforce the ban against public consumption. The legislation leaves it to the Seattle Municipal Court to determine whether to add administrative costs to the fines. But court officials have said the $27 fine will cover administrative costs.
(c)2013 The Seattle Times