Bethlehem ordinance decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana “is not being used . . . But officers do have reasons they aren’t using it.”

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Gadfly will dig in to the report by Chief DiLuzio at the Public Safety meeting March 3, but, for starters, Sara’s article gives you a nice overview.

Sara K. Satullo, “Bethlehem decriminalized weed, but city cops aren’t on board.” lehighvalleylive.com., March 6, 2020.

Bethlehem City Council took a progressive stand when it unanimously decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana back in 2018, in hopes of preventing a minor arrest from derailing a person’s future job and school prospects.

Yet, a year-and-a-half later data show that Bethlehem police officers are hesitant to ignore state law in favor of issuing small time violators — those with 30 grams or less of pot — a city fine.

In fact, city police only used the new city law for 19 of the 289 total minor marijuana arrests made over that same time period. In the heart of South Bethlehem, Lehigh University police reported five low-level weed arrests in 2019, only charging one person under state law.

City police Chief Mark DiLuzio shared these stats with council’s public safety committee Tuesday evening, explaining officers have been hesitant to rely on the city law amid fears they’d be accused of dispensing justice unfairly. “You are correct it is not being used,” DiLuzio said. “But officers do have reasons they aren’t using it.”

Members of city council and District Judge Nancy Matos Gonzales, who penned a December letter to DiLuzio, worry there’s currently an inequitable system in place due to uneven enforcement. Forty-seven percent of the minor marijuana arrests since the ordinance was enacted occurred in the Southside, which covers Matos Gonzalez’s district.

At the close of the meeting, the chief surprised council by floating a possible solution: city officers can fine someone under the city law or charge them under both the city and state law and leave it up to a district judge. The idea was met with support from council and DiLuzio promised to issue a directive to his department.

The city ordinance only applies to the Northampton County section of the city because Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin — the top law enforcement official in the county — says state law supersedes the city law. Pennsylvania treats marijuana possession as a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in prison and a $500 fine.

“Many of the officers, and I’ll be real blunt with you, they have an issue with it,” DiLuzio said of the option to use the city law. “Their issue is: we have the same violation on this side of town and the same violation here and we have two different ways to enforce it. It should be universal and it should come from the state.”

The chief surveyed his 154 officers department and the 117 cops who responded were split on decriminalization with 44% favoring it. But 97% agreed it should come from state lawmakers.

The majority of the marijuana arrests stem from officers encountering people while investigating another crime, the chief said. The stats don’t reflect the officers who choose to toss a small amount of pot they find. “We are not out there hunting down people and jumping out of bushes to arrest people for weed,” DiLuzio said.

Council members were upset to learn police were not choosing the city fine the majority of the time and pressed DiLuzio to explain why and outline any steps he’s taken to encourage its use.

Officers get to decide whether to charge someone under the city or state law, DiLuzio said. So many factors go into this: Was the person cooperative? Are they under the influence? Were they driving? Is it only a little bit of pot?

Of the 19 people who were charged under the city law: five were white, four black and 10 Hispanic, the chief said. “It was used more on minorities,” he said.

Council members shared Judge Matos Gonzalez’s concerns that Lehigh students arrested by campus police are facing small fines for marijuana violations, while most people arrested steps off campus by city police face state misdemeanor charges, carrying stiffer penalties, court costs and required court appearances.

Decriminalization must come from Harrisburg, the chief said.

Councilman Michael Colon, who chairs the public safety committee, said council wasn’t willing to wait for change in Harrisburg, where mechanisms move slowly. Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana, so large chunks of the U.S. population are free to walk into a dispensary and buy whatever they want. In most of Pennsylvania, a small amount of pot gets you a criminal record, Colon said.

Council wants to be at the front of this sea change, which is why it joined at other cities in decriminalization, Colon said. He predicted this will be looked at like Prohibition in the near future.

Marijuana enforcement differential comes to committee tomorrow

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Nate Jastrzemski, “Southside marijuana charges uneven.” Bethlehem Press, February 17, 2020.

More than a year ago Bethlehem passed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance giving police the discretion to charge people arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana either under the harsh federal statute or the less severe City ordinance comparable to receiving a traffic ticket.

‘Twas wondered from the beginning how the ordinance would be applied since the Lehigh County District Attorney wanted all cases to be charged under the federal statute. Creating the potential for a boundary dispute. Charged one way one side of the street, another way on the other.

But there’s another issue too.

In December Southside District Judge Nancy Matos Gonzalez published a letter calling attention to the fact that Lehigh University police were charging Lehigh students under the lesser penalty while by-and-large the Bethlehem police were using the federal statute — what she saw as a problem for her dispensing fair and equal justice.

Lehigh students get off with a slap on the wrist, Southside residents get hammered.

Gadfly has written about this here and here.

The Judge’s full letter is printed here.

On January 6 the Mayor said that the Police Chief would investigate the county differential, and on January 13 Councilman Reynolds called also for information on application of the laws in the different geographical regions of the City.

The issue in the Southside is particularly crucial because of the racial and social class discrimination implications if there is an uneven application of the law between, for example, Hispanic residents and “privileged” white students.

We would assume that necessary information gathering for tomorrow’s Public Safety Committee meeting would necessitate contacting the various magistrates and gathering statistics. And, like the Bethlehem Press reporter above, Gadfly tried 2-3 weeks ago to do a bit of investigating himself to see if that was happening.

The other Southside Judge had not been contacted by the police but reported to Gadfly that during a several month period before Judge Gonzalez’s letter was publicized, the Bethlehem ordinance was not used at all in 117 cases. Another Judge met with me only to say that there had been no contact from Bethlehem police and no statistics were gathered. All other judges would not talk with me at all.

The information from the two Southside judges makes you wonder if Bethlehem police practice is undermining the intent of the recent ordinance decriminalizing the use of small amounts of marijuana, as well as wonder if the ordinance is applied differently in different parts of the city — especially in the heavily Hispanic Southside.

We are hoping for a good discussion based on solid data tomorrow.

The Public Safety Committee is chaired by Michael Colón, with members Grace Crampsie Smith and Olga Negrón. The meeting is 5:30 in Town Hall, before the regular City Council meeting at 7PM.

Marijuana arrest the subject of a dispute between the police and a judge

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On November 20, 2019, Bethlehem Police Chief Mark Diluzio wrote to Northampton County Court Administrator J. Jermaine Greene about a conversation District Judge Nicholas Englesson had with two Bethlehem Police officers relating to a traffic-stop arrest of an Hispanic man for possession of a small amount of marijuana, an arrest that revealed an outstanding warrant for a man with the same name as a deported felon. Deputy Chief Scott Meixell co-signed the letter with Chief Diluzio. Further investigation at headquarters indicated that the man was not the subject of the warrant.

Chief Diluzio was concerned about the racial character of the Judge’s conversation with the officers in, it was claimed, such remarks to the arresting officer as “I don’t want you hassling citizens because they speak Spanish.” The arresting officer said he felt that he was being accused of being racist. The two officers present at the conversation with the Judge gave statements about the conversation.

The letter signed by the Chiefs and the statements of the two officers can be found here:

DiLuzio and Meixell to Greene 11 20 19

The Chief writes that “The Bethlehem Police Department serves a diverse population which includes a substantial number of citizens from the Hispanic community. The Department has always fostered a positive relationship with members of that community.”

Judge Englesson responded to the Chief’s concerns in a letter to Court Administrator Greene dated November 29, 2019. That letter will be printed here tomorrow.

The Mayor has provided a statement to Gadfly as follows: “The City Administration is well aware of the matter. It has been thoroughly reviewed internally. The matter is the subject of an ongoing non-criminal investigation. We caution you not to speculate as to the nature of the ongoing investigation. We caution you that it would be inappropriate to assume the truth of the allegations. We caution you that it would be inappropriate to assume there is good cause for the allegations. The City Administration will have no further comment because the information and evidence are subject to confidentiality under Pennsylvania law. ”

By “allegations,” Gadfly assumes the Mayor means allegations from both sides, for Judge Englesson has a side of the event too, as we will see tomorrow.

As usual, Gadfly recommends going to the primary sources. Withholding judgment till you hear all sides is a good thing.

There’s a significant Public Safety committee meeting March 3 at 5:30 in Town Hall on questions about the police application of our relatively new marijuana decriminalization ordinance. Both the Mayor and committee chair Michael Colon have indicated to Gadfly that the subject of Chief DiLuzio’s letter will not be discussed there.

Judge Englesson’s response tomorrow.

Official responses to the marijuana enforcement differential

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Say, didn’t I just see all of you in line in front of me at Weiss market an hour or so ago?

We posted earlier about the differential in the heavy way Bethlehem police are charging residents and the lighter way Lehigh Police are charging students in front of southside judge Nancy Matos Gonzalez, a serious question, said the judge, of her ability to dispense  justice equitably.

In other words, in this judge’s experience the Bethlehem Police were not very often utilizing the lesser charge option made possible by the ordinance.

And it makes you wonder if Bethlehem police practice is undermining the intent of the recent ordinance decriminalizing the use of small amounts of marijuana, as well as wonder if the ordinance is applied differently in other parts of the city.

At Council January 2, the Mayor reported that the Police Chief will be meeting with the new Northampton County District Attorney Houck about his views on our new ordinance. Remember that the decriminalizing ordinance was not effective in the Lehigh County parts of Bethlehem because the Lehigh County D.A. ruled that Federal law still uniformly applies there. The former Northampton County D.A. ok’d the option for the police to decide whether to make the offense a heavy (Federal) or light (City) charge.

The Mayor’s response seems solely aimed at the question of how the marijuana law is functioning in the context of the split county jurisdiction in our town.

But that’s not the same question as how the police option to bring a light or a heavy charge is working.

Councilman Reynolds’ request to Council seems have the necessary breadth.

marijuana 2

Reynolds’ request for a Public Safety meeting on the issue will be communicated to Council for action at next Tuesday’s meeting.

Southside magistrate has difficulty dispensing equitable justice in marijuana cases

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Nicole Radzievich, “District judge questions how Bethlehem treats minor marijuana offenses.” Morning Call, December 16, 2019.

We thought that the difficulty with decriminalizing uses of small amounts of marijuana in Bethlehem would come because of our bi-county status.

Because of the different views of the respective District Attorneys, marijuana use in Lehigh County Bethlehem would remain a criminal offense whereas in Northampton County Bethlehem it might only be a summary defense at the discretion of the arresting officer.

Different legal jeopardy on two sides of the same Bethlehem street, as it were.

Gadfly has not heard problems or complaints about this anomaly, however.

But the disparity is of another kind — unregarded, though probably easily enough foreseen, when the legislation was discussed.

In the following letter, Southside magistrate Nancy Matos Gonzalez points out that Southside residents are penalized much more severely than Lehigh students for the same marijuana offense.

Lehigh generally charges students under the city ordinance with a summary offense on the order of a traffic ticket. But city officers, with discretion to file either a summary or a criminal charge, choose the criminal charges against Southside residents 3+ times more than Lehigh police do against Lehigh students.

The disparity is so great, says Matos Gonzalez, “that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.”

In short, it would appear that the Lehigh students are getting a break that Southside residents aren’t from our well-intentioned legislation to decriminalize use of small amounts of marijuana.

By a big margin.

Sensitive to the “vastly differing” demographics “between both communities” unarguably based “on race, ethnicity, and economic levels,” Matos Gonzalez asks how this disparity can be justified.

The differential financial burden of a criminal charge is severe, as Matos Gonzalez documents, but the part of the decriminalizing legislation rationale that Gadfly remembers most vividly from City Council discussion as well as the horror stories at the local public hearing held by Lieutenant Governor Fetterman was the “residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal recordfor using a small amount of marijuana.

By and large, Lehigh students are being spared that career impediment.

Hmmm.

Gadfly remembers vigorous public comments last year at Council meetings by Jeff Riedy, Executive Director of Lehigh Valley NORML and would welcome hearing from him again on this situation.

And also some expanded remarks on marijuana enforcement by the Chief beyond what he said about drugs in Bethlehem during the recent budget hearings (the last few minutes of this video).

The question would seem to be whether enforcement practice by Bethlehem police is undercutting the intent of the legislation and whether that enforcement practice is different on the Southside than in other parts of the City.

A tip o’ the hat to Magistrate Matos Gonzalez for calling attention to a possible “systemic issue” that should be addressed.

Gadfly always recommends going to the primary source. The magistrate’s full letter is printed below.

Dear Chief DiLuzio,

I recently received your letter referencing my previous discussions with both yourself and Mayor Donchez. To be clear, I initiated contact to voice my concern regarding a noted potential for disparity in sanctions, permanent records, and financial cost for Individuals prosecuted for small amount of marijuana. This noted potential for disparity is solely based upon which one of the two police departments operating within this district prosecutes the case. Further, expressed that the differing policy practices between the two agencies has, in my professional opinion, brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.

As you are aware, Bethlehem Police and Lehigh University Police both operate in South Bethlehem. Understandably, as independent agencies, each has its own Standard Operating Procedures. I am fully cognizant it is not my role, practice, nor desire to critique those procedures. I do, though, unabashedly feel compelled to illuminate what is potentially an undetected consequential result of policy implementation and absolutely believe it is my role to speak out to systemic matters affecting my rulings and sworn oath to uphold justice.

As the presiding Magisterial District Judge in this district, I offer the following summary of happenings since the enactment of the law up until the date of meeting with the Mayor on September 26, 2019. These are the pertinent factors relating to these case filings on which I base my concerns:

  • Lehlgh University PD has by general policy and practice filed the local summary ordinance in the Small Amount cases, which decriminalizes the possession of marijuana.
  • Bethlehem PD policy allows for “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both. By practice, the Bethlehem Police officers have, in this district alone, filed the criminal grading of Poss of a Small Amount at a rate” of 3.25 times more often than the ordinance offense. Additionally, for cases that a Bethlehem Police officer has filed a Poss of Drug Paraphernalia charge related to Marijuana, the officer is 7 times more likely to file the criminal Poss of Small Amount charge.
  • Defendants who are charged with a city ordinance of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana are ordered to pay a set fine and cost amount of $116.25 for a first offense and a maximum set fine and cost of $241.25 for up to a offense within one calendar year.
  • Defendants who plead guilty to the criminal charge of Poss of a Small Amount of Marijuana can be ordered to pay fine and cost of up to $1073.75 and up to 30 days incarceration.
  • In an effort to balance the scales for parties prosecuted for the criminal charge rather than the summary offense, I, by practice, set the fine at $1.00 minimal amount. Unfortunately, once the cost for criminal processing fees are attached the total minimal amount due is $574.75. These parties are subject to cost almost 5 times higher than the summary cost and they are subject to a potentially more serious residual sanction of a resulting permanent criminal record.
  • Unfortunately, there are many individuals who wish to plead guilty to the charge at the Preliminary Hearing but do not have the means to post the $574.?5 fine and cost assessment. The district court does not supervise fine and cost collection of criminal cases and those parties, more often than not, waive their preliminary hearings, often by necessity to have time to raise some funds. In the interim months awaiting their case, they are subject to bail and with the potential for supervision with specified conditions. Once their case comes to resolution, they are subject to a significant increase in cost at the higher court level.
  • For the defendants who do not dispute the merits of the case but are interested in preserving their record, they often chose to waive their Preliminary Hearing to the higher court and seal: the ARD program. They are then subject to the assessment of bail with potential conditions, often subject to further cost to hire legal counsel to maneuver through the process of the higher court application process; face even more significant court cost at the higher level; and may be Subject to probationary Supervision.

For the sake of transparency, I will state my motive in addressing my concerns is not based on a philosophical stance regarding how Marijuana cases should be prosecuted. Undoubtedly, the approach towards the prosecution of Marijuana cases is in a transitional time period on the national, state, county, and city level. I am also aware that has complicated circumstances specific to the City of Bethlehem, which lies within two differing counties. My motive is purely to strive for an equal playing field for all who appear before this District Court. Right now, that does not currently exist and the result is polarizing. To be as frank as possible, if you are arrested for the charge at hand by Lehigh University, which is a long standing prestigious academic institution, you will likely, by far, be subject to less sanctions, court supervision, and permanent effects than if you are a citizen in the same circumstance from the city streets charged within the same Magisterial District that is all contained within a one square mile radius. I ask how that can be justified. I will not ignore that the demographics between both communities are unarguably vastly differing based on race, ethnicity, and economic levels. Therefore, I stand by my comment made earlier that there is a systemic issue to address here, of which I do not wish to be complicit. I remain hopeful this writing will prompt a closer look at the circumstances at hand and potential for disparity, particularly with the order “Officer discretion to use ordinance, state law or both.”

Sincerely,

Nancy Matos Gonzalez

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith: “This area needs to really be given attention”

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Gadfly wraps up today’s long “neighborhood” thread from last Tuesday’s City Council meeting here.

He loves the real down-to-earth people from our town, and they are no more compelling than when they are in need.

He spun this thread out hoping you would linger on each of the resident testimonies.

You don’t want to depend on summaries and soundbites.

You want to hear the live voices. And recognize the common humanity.

So, where do you go when you are in need? When you are in trouble. When you need help.

You go to City Council, of course, which, as I always say, though administratively powerless, is to our residents the “face” of City government.

So these people came to City Council looking for someone to help.

Gadfly doesn’t mean to slight the other Council members, but he senses that in her short time on Council Grace Crampsie Smith, who has a family background in law enforcement, is focusing on such neighborhood issues as block watches, policing, housing.

So he brings this thread to an end (for now) with Councilwoman Crampsie Smith’s concluding remarks on the issues these residents brought to Council’s attention.

  • While we want every single neighborhood in the City to be safe, we are seeing certainly an increase in drug problems and poverty and homelessness and affordable housing, but I think this area needs to really be given attention because of the number of drug and criminal activities that have occurred in the last five years.
  • I really would ask that the City Administration and the Police Department and especially the Zoning do everything they can to try to rectify the problems we’ve been seeing.

It may not be clear from Gadfly’s clips that the main focus of attention in the resident comments has been on the 900 block of Main St., with some reference to Garrison St.

“I feel community policing is very important”

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A resident proposes a plan in response to the problems detailed over the last several posts, and — behold — we see another gadfly born!

  • I know many of the older police, and we managed to clean up quite a few blocks.
  • I feel community policing is very important, because it is the only way that citizens get to see that police are human too.
  • We became good friends.
  • And we managed to get good block watches going.
  • I hear now that nobody wants to get involved any more in community policing.
  • Some may not admit it, but they are afraid — and I understand that totally.
  • Because I’m afraid . . . some guy pulled a gun in front of my house at me.
  • I was pretty much a prisoner of my own home.
  • Community policing has done a lot for me and other people.
  • So I would really like to see something done with this.
  • Get officers in to this, I’ll even volunteer to work with them.
  • This is a very important part of the police department.
  • If they’re afraid to go out there and talk to people, that’s not good.
  • I’m going to be a thorn in everybody’s side, but I’m doing it for the good of my home, which is Bethlehem.

Gadfly knows this is a big change of pace, but how about this as an example of good community policing?