Dazed and confused

Marijuana and quality-of-life cases clog Newsom's Community Justice Court
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Police officers in the Tenderloin have routinely violated city policies and wasted scarce public money sending people busted for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana to the Community Justice Center (CJC), a pet project of Mayor Gavin Newsom that was supposed to save money and clean up the Tenderloin.

Instead, all these minor drug possession cases have been dismissed by an already overtaxed court system. And as the police have only just begun to ease up on referring these cases to the CJC in its second month of operations, they continue to bust the homeless for quality-of-life violations.

The Tenderloin police station referred at least 17 cases of simple pot possession cases to the CJC since its inception in March. After only one month of the CJC's operations in the Tenderloin, Public Defender Jeff Adachi could already see that such police referrals represented a larger misuse of resources occurring throughout the city.

Adachi's office has handled more than 300 cases at the CJC. Of his caseload, he estimates that "about 80 percent of the cases have involved loitering, illegal camping, possession of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia, and blocking the sidewalk. The remainder of the cases were petty thefts, batteries, and other miscellaneous crimes."

Clarence Wilson, a 67-year-old African American Rastafarian, had his marijuana possession case dismissed at the CJC with Adachi's help. Wilson's ordeal began after he finished crossing the street at Hyde and Ellis at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 8. He recalls walking in the crosswalk during a green light. But when he gazed up while reaching the other side, it had just turned red.

Two Tenderloin station police officers stopped him for jaywalking and proceeded to question him to see if he was carrying anything. "Just herbal," he admitted, referring to the small amount of marijuana he had just purchased.

The officers faced Wilson against the wall, handcuffed him, and drove him to the Tenderloin police station where he spent 45 minutes handcuffed to a bench. Before they released him with a court date for the following Monday at the CJC, they booked him under a jaywalking infraction and a misdemeanor violation of marijuana possession of less than 28.5 grams (an ounce).

Wilson's case stands out because he has lived in the city for 33 years with a clean record, but has now been sucked into Newsom's costly criminal justice experiment. "I was the guinea pig for that day," he said. "All these other people were crossing the red light walking, and you chose me — and you wouldn't even tell me why I was being arrested. You wouldn't even read me my rights."

"If the officer wanted to cite Mr. Wilson for jaywalking, he could have written a citation and released him on the spot," Adachi said. "But to handcuff him, treat him as a common criminal for possession of a small amount of marijuana is exactly what the city's directive prohibits."

Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum sentence of a $100 fine. But city law, specifically Administrative Code Chapter 12X, calls for police to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana their "lowest priority" and to focus their resources elsewhere. The Board of Supervisors approved the law in 2006, sponsored by then-Sup. Tom Ammiano, who wrote, "the federal government's war on drugs has failed" and called for a more sensible approach in San Francisco.

Particularly at a time when Newsom is asking every city department to makes budget cuts of 25 percent to cope with a $438 million budget deficit, Adachi said many CJC cases are a waste of precious public resources.

The CJC only takes misdemeanors and nonviolent felony cases in its court system.