County sheriff’s pot busts draw ire in Columbia

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A local ordinance that in some cases treats marijuana possession as a minor municipal violation isn’t being followed by Boone County sheriff’s deputies who have stepped up patrols within Columbia’s city limits, an attorney says.

Sheriff Dwayne Carey and Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight are disregarding the intent of city voters who approved the change in 2004, the Columbia-based Missouri Civil Liberties Association said in a Thursday news release.

Columbia’s ordinance treats possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana as a misdemeanor. Violators are usually released with a summons to appear in court rather than placed under arrest — a procedure akin to receiving a traffic ticket.

But criminal defense attorney Dan Viets of the civil liberties group said sheriff’s officers are arresting those possessing marijuana within city limits under more stringent state laws, and Knight is not downgrading those cases to municipal status. Under state law, possession of 35 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The sheriff and prosecutor did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.

“Neither one of them have come up with any legal justification (for the move),” Viets said. “I don’t think there’s any exemption for sheriff’s deputies to follow laws within the city of Columbia.”

Carey announced plans in January to boost patrols and enforcement in Columbia, citing reduced manpower on the city force and an increase in drug-related violence in the unincorporated areas of Boone County.

Viets did not provide specific data to back up his assertion of more drug arrests by deputies in the city, but said he has represented several defendants in such circumstances.

Marijuana law violators in the city court system typically pay a fine of no more than $250 and receive community service in lieu of jail time. The conviction is dropped if the offender stays out of legal trouble for another year, though repeat offenders and those with felony convictions are exempt.

The city of St. Louis recently adopted a similar ordinance modeled on the Columbia version.

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