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One year after decriminalization, pot tickets a bust

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Updated: November 26, 2013 6:34AM

Chicago Police issued just 1,117 tickets for small amounts of marijuana in the first 14 months of decriminalization — and the cash-strapped city has collected only 21 percent of the $310,755 in fines, records show.

“The ticketing process is an administrative pain in the butt. It’s so much easier to do a marijuana arrest the old-fashioned way” or just let it go, said Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields.

The sobering news that pot tickets have been a bust is tucked away in the 2014 Budget Overview for the city’s Department of Administrative Hearings.

From Aug. 4, 2012, the day ticketing began, through Sept. 24 of this year, police issued just 1,117 tickets. Defendants were found liable in 832, or 81 percent, of the 1,035 cases resolved.

City hearing officers have assessed $310,755 in penalties, but only $67,256, or 21 percent, of those fines have been collected. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 million that proponents predicted the city would easily collect in just one year.

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to questions about the low collection rate for fines. But historically, the city has had a tough time collecting for similar administrative fines ranging from loud noise to fly dumping. In the case of pot tickets, the person may be thumbing their nose at the fine or doesn’t have the wherewithal to pay it.

Although the ratio of minor pot arrests to tickets is about 10-to-1, officers are making fewer arrests than last year.

There were 11,699 pot arrests from Jan. 1 to Aug. 3, 2012, compared with 9,269 over the same period this year — a 21 percent drop.

For Ald. Danny Solis (25th), the ordinance he championed has come nowhere close to his goal of putting officers on the street for the equivalent of 2,500 additional eight-hour days.

Adam Collins, a police spokesman, pointed out that the pot-ticketing ordinance bars officers from writing tickets in parks and in other situations. “There are many circumstances in which an arrest is mandatory,” he said.

Collins added: “If you do the math, replacing the four-hour arrest process (two officers in a beat car who take two hours to process a pot arrest) with a 40-minute ticketing process has saved us an estimated 3,860 man hours.”

But Solis said Thursday he’s so disappointed about the results, he’s arranged a meeting with police Supt. Garry McCarthy to find ways to convince officers to “take it more seriously” and write more tickets.

“I thought police would accept it more because they wouldn’t have to go through the process of arresting and booking somebody. I thought the free time they would get would have them more on the streets and in our neighborhoods. I also thought it would generate some revenue the city really needs,” Solis said.

Shields said the ordinance approved by an emotionally torn City Council has too many strings attached and too much bureaucratic red tape.

In order to write pot tickets, officers have to be field-test qualified or summon someone who is. They have to return to the station to inventory the marijuana, the field test kit and the field test affidavit — even if the results are negative.

There are also a host of conditions governing which offenders are eligible for pot tickets. It’s only those with no concurrent charges, a verifiable ID and less than 15 grams of marijuana that is not packaged for delivery. Offenders caught smoking on Park District property, near schools or in a motor vehicle are also ineligible.

“Police officers would love to have this process actually work to raise money for the city and deter crime. But it’s caused 10 times more administrative steps. I can get through a physical arrest in 45 minutes. With this new process, it probably takes about an hour and 15 minutes,” Shields said.

“If you’re a gang-banger and a known problem and you have weed, you’re damn right you’re getting locked up. But you have to prioritize. There is so much weed on the streets of Chicago, not every person will get locked up. If we did, every police car in the city would be down on a weed pinch.”

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