Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

New policy in San Antonio could lead to fewer arrests for marijuana possession

Nico Lahood

New policy in San Antonio could lead to fewer arrests for marijuana possession

After he was elected as Bexar County District Attorney in 2014, Nico LaHood said he would consider implementing cite-and-release for some possession of marijuana charges. Nearly three years later, LaHood proposed a new “catch and release” pilot program that that gives officers discretion to ticket those accused of certain low level offenses, including possession of marijuana less than four ounces, rather than send them to jail.

Although the precise parameters of the program remain unclear (In Justice Today requested the written policy from the DA’s office but received no response), according to the press conference, other crimes that could now be treated like a traffic violation include vandalism or property damage under $500, refusing to pay a bill at a hotel or restaurant if the cost is under $750, and driving with an invalid license. LaHood has said people cited for these crimes would have the chance to participate in community service and attend classes on their violations. If they successfully follow through within 90 days, no criminal charges will ever be filed against them.

There is at least one critical limitation on this program: Discretion rests with the police officer, who can choose whether to arrest the individual or write them a ticket.“(The police officer) has an option, does he want to make that arrest, and it’s completely within the officer’s discretion, or does he want to write a summons,” Lahood said at the press conference announcing the new policy.

The office of the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney has had the ability to implement this program for the last decade, but hasn’t done it until now.

LaHood has touted the benefits of this program, stating that it “will allow officers to stay on our streets and continue to protect our community, [while] help[ing] prevent the overburdening of our criminal justice system.”

But although marijuana possession is legal in a large portion of the country, LaHood described possession as a “poor choice,” claiming that his new policy would “allow the citizen accused an opportunity to learn from a poor choice without having the stigma of an arrest follow them for the rest of their life.”

Cite-and-release could be an important step forward, but it is unclear what effect it will have in Bexar County. First, it will not meaningfully reduce Bexar County’s exploding jail population, which is so overcrowded that the Bexar County Sheriff has been forced to send inmates to a neighboring county.

Sheriff Javier Salazar admitted this policy would not meaningfully reduce that population, because most people charged with marijuana receive a personal recognizance bond. And according to an investigation by a local news affiliate, on average, just 27 people are held on marijuana charges of possessing two ounces or less each month — it is unknown how many are locked up on four ounces.

And because officers have discretion on whether to implement this policy, it could have an even smaller effect. If the officers dislike the person caught with marijuana, they can arrest him. If the officers believe the person is creating a non-arrestable nuisance, perhaps a homeless person is hanging around an area for too long and the police want him gone, they can arrest him. Currently, there is no guidance as to how the officers should exercise that discretion, although Lahood said guidance would be forthcoming.

The parameters of the program also remain unknown. We know that a participant in cite-and-release will have to take a class, but how expensive will that class be? How long will it last? How often during the day will it be offered? What if someone’s job is during the class? Equally important, will there be other limitations on its availability that may prevent people from participating in the program? What if the individual has a record for other offenses, even misdemeanors? Is he still eligible for cite-and-release? What if he is on bond for an outstanding case? These are important questions to ask when evaluating the effects of a program like this.

The San Antonio Police Chief has countered with his own program. Rather than offer cite-and-release to those found with four ounces of marijuana, he recommends officers do so for those found with less than two ounces. Obviously, that would further lessen the impact of a program on the justice system.

Bexar County is the latest area to seek to enact policies to marijuana users out of jail and the criminal justice system. Harris County in Texas recently announced a similar program, with District Attorney Kim Ogg saying her office no longer prosecutes “trace cases” that involve trivial amounts of drugs.

LaHood said he is not a fan of what Harris County is doing, but he did not explain what his objections were beyond saying that the officer in Harris County were essentially giving advice to the people they were ticketing, and he didn’t want to do that in Bexar County.

And LaHood, who recently announced he was running for reelection, could be the key to what happens next. The district attorney stressed the program could be tweaked or eliminated depending on how effective it is.

A criminal record is preventing this father from donating a kidney to dying son

A criminal record is preventing this father from donating a kidney to dying son

A 2-year-old child is in danger of dying because his father is not being allowed to donate a kidney to his son because of the dad’s criminal history.

A.J. Dickerson was born without kidneys and his father, Anthony Dickerson, is a perfect match. But Emory Hospital in Atlanta delayed the transplant after Anthony Dickerson was thrown in jail for violating his probation.

The case is a chilling example of the stigmatization people with a criminal record face. While it’s usually a struggle just to find a job or a place to live, society’s desire to keep punishing people who’ve been incarcerated could in this instance kill a child who doesn’t have to die.

The child’s mother, Carmella Burgess, said the hospital told them Anthony needed to be on good behavior for 3–4 months before he could donate the kidney.

The hospital originally appeared willing to go forward with the surgery, with Emory writing the jail and asking if Dickerson could be transported to the hospital for a pre-operation appointment.

But the hospital changed it’s tune after Dickerson got out of jail, and said the earliest the surgery could occur was January 2018, Burgess said.

“The lady said we need your parole information and your probation info. He said ‘why?’ We need you to be on good behavior for three to four months before you can give your son the kidney. And January 2018 we will think about re-evaluating you basically,” Burgess said an interview with CBS News.

Burgess said Dickerson’s behavior shouldn’t be used to deny a lifesaving transplant.

“It’s about my son,” Carmella said. “He’s been through a lot. It’s like we’ve been waiting on this. And Dad making a mistake shouldn’t affect what he wants to do with our son.”

Dickerson also said his son shouldn’t be made to pay for his decisions.

“What do he got to do with the mistakes I made? Nothing,” Anthony said.

Burgess fears her son will not live long enough to get the transplant because his health is failing and he needs bladder surgery.

A.J. Dickerson also needs to have dialysis every day, suffered a stroke two months ago and needs constant care.

Emory has refused to comment, citing patient confidentiality laws.

The family has set up a GoFundMe page and is asking for donations. They are also on getting on the waiting list for a kidney, but awaiting a kidney that is a match can take months, and sometimes years.

More in Explainers

Prosecutors Forced to Redefine ‘Gang Member’

Prosecutors Forced to Redefine ‘Gang Member’

Two years ago, some longtime residents of Placentia, California, were disturbed when Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced his plan to fight a problem they didn’t think they had: violent street gangs. “The residents in these neighborhoods that consist of families, children and the elderly have been in the crossfire of these rival gangs for too long. Injunctions are tools that we will keep using to make communities safe from criminal-street-gang activity,” Rackauckas wrote in a 2015 press release. But crime rates in the small bedroom community were the lowest they had been since the 1950s. In fact, that year a home security consultation company, SafeWise, ranked it among the 50 safest communities in California. And yet, the DA’s office proposed two gang injunctions against the Plas and La Jolla street gangs in the city’s two historic Mexican barrios restricting the activities of 51 suspected gang members.

For the past 25 years, law enforcement and prosecutors in California have touted injunctions as powerful tools to crack down on gang violence. They work like this: a prosecutor files an action, called an injunction, against a particular gang that puts a series of restrictions on alleged members while they are in a certain geographic area. For people included in the injunction, it is a crime to talk or otherwise engage with other alleged members (including family), drink alcohol, stay out past the 10 pm curfew, and wear gang colors or communicate through gang sign gestures.

But critics say injunctions constitute a restriction of civil liberties without due process, and prosecutorial overreach targeting black and brown residents. In short, opponents hold that prosecutors use thin evidence to include someone in an injunction and make it difficult to be removed. This argument made it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 in a case called , Vasquez v. RackauckasThe Court handed down an opinion saying that given the “breadth” and “prophylactic character” of injunctions, there must be a meaningful process to determine who is a member of a gang.

In Placentia, Lawyers from the Urban Peace Institute, a non-profit legal aid organization, are using this ruling to argue that Rackauckas’ office needs to bring forward a higher standard of evidence that the individuals in the Plas and La Jolla case are an active threat to the community. So far, they’ve stalled the cases for two years, a significant delay on a process that has previously been swift and uncontested. This is the first time that lawyers have been involved in an injunction case from the beginning in Orange County post-Vasquez.

“There are ten pages of legal reasoning in Vasquez that I don’t think any judge would ignore, saying that you have to have an active hearing in a gang injunction,” said Sean Garcia-Leys, staff attorney at the Urban Peace Institute who has been representing Plas and La Jolla.

Yet, the opinion did not lay out exactly who can adequately determine a person’s gang involvement. In the Plas and La Jolla cases, Garcia-Leys and his colleagues have successfully argued that the former status-quo, a quick hearing — if any at all — using evidence such as papers signed by clients as part of past plea bargains admitting gang affiliation — does not meet due-process standards. In the spring of 2016, the judge on the case, Kim Dunning, laid out three criteria for people to be legitimately included under the injunctions, Garcia-Leys explained: First, they cannot be incarcerated because inmates cannot pose a threat to the community, and would be unable to be present at an active participation hearing. Second, they must not be under court supervision because if they are, the injunction is redundant and gang involvement becomes a criminal, not civil, matter. Finally, they must have open or recent charges that demonstrate their dangerousness.

Thus far, Rackauckas’ office has not brought forward a single eligible person. Garcia-Leys predicts that the injunction will be dismissed for undue delay when it hits the three-year mark a year from this November.

Rackauckas’s office contends that the injunctions are, “a response to pleas from the community regarding criminal street gangs and the crime they inflict upon the residents of Orange County,” spokesperson Michelle Van Der Linden wrote in an email. “Courts have long deemed gang injunctions a legal tool to combat gang violence and gang crimes. Injunctions work to prohibit gang members from hurting innocent citizens and acting like gang members,” she wrote.

But people living in those barrios say they felt the proposed injunctions were a response to gentrification, not an increase in crime or violence. “Some people in the community felt that the injunction was along the lines of political interest and or business interest because there had been such a decrease in gang activity over the years,” said resident Josh Correa. a local minister who has spoken on behalf of people named in the injunctions in court to argue that they are not a threat to the community.

“If it was the Bloods and Crips we may not have intervened,” Correa said, “But in our community, there is a longer history of racial oppression than there is of gang oppression.”

Correa points out that the injunction affects not only those named, but the entire community. “In our community, there are not many households that don’t have seven to 10 people living together,” he said. In effect, the injunction would force men to leave their families, or displace entire families to an area outside of the safe zone. “You’re not talking about affecting 50 people — you’re talking more like 500,” he said.

To be sure, youth from the La Jolla and Plas neighborhoods have been scuffling for decades. But the case that they are menacing the community is relatively weak. Individuals named in the injunctions who were convicted of recent, violent crimes are already incarcerated. The rest have only minor convictions, such as graffiti.

In other parts of the state, the once-popular injunctions seem to be somewhat going out of vogue as a tool to fight gangs. In 2014 a Santa Barbara judge struck down a proposed injunction, saying that the police failed to give adequate evidence that the alleged gangs posed a threat to the community. In Oakland, two active injunctions were dissolved in 2015. “The injunctions were intended to be temporary measures to disrupt criminal behavior of specific members of gangs within specific neighborhoods. They were not intended to last for the lifetime of the defendants,” City Attorney Barbara Parker wrote in a statement at the time. In April, the Ventura County DA’s office and the Oxnard Police Department recently sent letters to the thousand-plus enjoined individuals there telling them that they have the right to a court hearing to be removed, this is seen as a preemptive move as injunctions are receiving more scrutiny.

Riverside County did implement an injunction in June, but for the first time the court required the DA to re-establish that the enjoined individuals are gang members every five years. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles the ACLU filed a law suit against the LAPD alleging that they served injunctions to people without giving them the opportunity be removed. The city attorney’s office said it will propose a revised policy later this year.

In Placentia, Correa said that he wishes the city would funnel resources towards crime prevention such as education and employment training. “We’re not pro-gang, we’re pro-people,” he said.

More in Podcasts