Massachusetts Has No Way To Collect New $100 Pot Fines


Graphic: The Katy Capsule
Massachusetts’ 2008 decrim law, approved by voters, specifies a $100 fine for marijuana. But it doesn’t specify what to do if folks don’t pay their tickets.

‚ÄčMassachusetts’ new law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana has left some local law enforcement officers dazed and confused, reports Aaron Gouveia of the Cape Cod Times.

Police officers for the past 18 months have been issuing the new $100 non-criminal citations to people caught with less than an ounce of pot. But when people don’t pay their fine, officials aren’t sure exactly what to do.

“There is no specific provision in the law with regard to (decriminalization) that says if you don’t pay the following shall occur,” said Edward Teague, clerk magistrate at Falmouth District Court. “There is no enforcement mechanism in the law.”
Police write the pot tickets, said Falmouth Police Chief Anthony Riello, but “after that it’s all out of our hands.”
Falmouth police initially passed the unpaid tickets to the district court, but according to Teague, unless someone appeals the ticket and requests a hearing before a magistrate, there is nothing the court system can do to people who fail to pay the fine.
Many pot smokers are realizing it pays not to pay, according to Assistant Town Clerk Laurie Robbins, whose office is now responsible for collecting delinquent fines.
There are 38 unpaid and unappealed fines dating back to last year in Falmouth alone, according to Robbins. The total number of marijuana citations issued in Falmouth is not known.
“When they come into our office after 21 days they just stay there,” Robbins said. “They don’t go anywhere.”
Other unpaid, non-criminal tickets, such as jaywalking, are usually filed with the district court, which can then issue a warrant, according to Falmouth Town Manager Robert Whritenour.
The problem with the pot tickes, Whritenour said, is the language of the law is flawed and Falmouth District Court will not assist with nonpayment issues.
At least part of the reason for this odd state of affairs is that the town — and not the court — would eventually receive the money. That “probably plays into it,” said Falmouth Town Attorney Frank Duffy.
According to Whritenour, another alternative would be to file a complain in another venue, such as a small claims court. But that scenario could easily turn into a situation in which the town is spending hundreds of dollars to collect a $100 fine, he said.
Massachusetts voters in 2008 overwhelmingly changed the law, turning possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor into a civil citation.
People are issued the $100 fine instead of being arrested, charged in criminal court and having the incident appear on a criminal background check.
Violators who are under 18 must pay the fine and attend “drug abuse counseling” groups.
Voters at a Falmouth town meeting — along with voters in several other Massachusetts towns — passed a local bylaw that adds an additional $300 fine for smoking pot in public.
Barnstable, with roughly half of 60 pot citations still unpaid, is facing a similar problem to Falmouth, police Sgt. Arthur Caiado said.
But according to Michael Meno of the Marijuana Policy Project, the problems being experienced in collecting the fines aren’t indicative of a problem with decriminalization.
“Any problem collecting the fines would be indicative of a problem with the civil citation system in general and not marijuana decriminalization itself,” Meno said.
But William Brooks, deputy police chief in Wellesley and a state “narcotics instructor,” grumbles that Massachusetts voters “took the teeth out of the law.”
Brooks said the language of the new law specifies no other action beyond the $100 fine can be levied against someone possessing an ounce or less of marijuan a.
“There is no way to collect these fines,” he said.