'A gap in training': One York City marijuana citation in six months

Last summer, York City became the fifth Pennsylvania municipality to decriminalize marijuana possession, giving police officers the option of writing tickets for the offense rather than filing criminal charges.

Marijuana decriminalization graphic. Photo Illustration by John A. Pavoncello

The idea behind the change was that people wouldn’t be dragged through the criminal justice system for a relatively minor offense, and police could focus on more serious crimes.

But more than six months after the ordinance took effect, that’s not how it’s working out.

Information obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request filed by The York Dispatch shows that between August and February, York City Police issued just one citation under the new ordinance.

During the same time period, officers filed 91 criminal charges for simple marijuana possession.

Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert said that when The York Dispatch asked questions regarding the numbers, it prompted the department to do some investigating.

"Through your question, we discovered a gap in training," he said.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and Police Chief Troy Bankert provide information about a morning police-involved shooting in Harrisburg in which York Police Officer Kyle Pitts was wounded, Thursday January 18, 2018. US Marshal Christopher Hill was killed during the incident and a Harrisburg officer was also wounded. John A. Pavoncello photo

Reasons: Some officers were not trained and were uncomfortable using the ordinance, which allows them to cite people for up to 30 grams of marijuana, the chief said. Thirty grams is about an ounce.

Bankert said he didn't know why those concerns were not sent up the chain of command, and he declined to speculate.

The internal investigation found the training is one of two major reasons for the large gap between the number of marijuana citations and criminal charges, he said.

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The other reason has to do with pot possession in conjunction with another crime, according to Bankert.

Someone charged with other crimes while also in possession of a small amount of marijuana would face a criminal charge for the possession, not just a citation.

Bankert said the idea behind the ordinance is to divert people from jail or harsh penalties.

"If you're already going to jail for aggravated assault, it defeats that purpose," he said.

Gap: Bankert said it takes time for police to evaluate a new law, a sentiment echoed by Officer Jeremy Mayer, president of White Rose Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the rank and file. 

“Like with any new law, there’s always transition time," said Mayer, who noted a new mayor and police chief took office in the months since the ordinance went into effect.

Now understanding that there is a "gap in training," Bankert said officers are going to receive guidance.

"I think responsible policing is responding to gaps in training and any other problems, and that's what we're doing," he said.

Officers will likely receive that training in May, Bankert said, and the situation will be re-evaluated six months later.

In the meantime, officers continue to have discretion on using the citation, the chief said.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich holds his first Neighborhood Chat at the Door of Salvation Development Center, Tuesday, April 10, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello photo

'Unintended consequences': Mayor Michael Helfrich, who was city council president at the time the ordinance was passed and supported it, said the change created some unforeseen issues.

For instance, Helfrich said, if an officer found someone with marijuana, they would want to search that person to see if they have more drugs. 

“If you see somebody smoking a joint and you don’t search them, then you don’t know if you're within the city’s ordinance or outside the city’s ordinance,” the mayor said.

York City solicitor Jason Sabol said that under the city's new ordinance officers cannot search people unless there is independent probable cause outside of the small amount of marijuana. However, under the state statute, officers can search, he said.

If someone is searched under a state statute and it results in a citation, hypothetically a defendant could argue that the search was unlawful, Sabol said.

The mayor also mentioned the ordinance does not cover marijuana paraphernalia. If someone is caught with marijuana and a pipe, then it becomes a criminal offense.

"How often are you going to be caught with marijuana and a pipe? Probably pretty often," Helfrich said.

He said the ordinance has good intentions, but sometimes trying something new reveals a "flaw" in what was planned.

City officials are going to meet sometime this month to figure out how to fix the situation, Helfrich added.

“We’re going to review the actual day-to-day workings of this ordinance," he said.

Reaction: Four members of the York City Council voted in favor of the ordinance in July. Of those four, three remain in their positions following the 2017 election.

Council President Henry Nixon said he voted for the ordinance so people won't end up having problems getting into college, getting loans or finding work.

Nixon said the chief's main reasons explaining the gap between charges and citations were satisfactory to him.

Councilwoman Judy Ritter-Dickson, who introduced the ordinance, and Council Vice President Sandie Walker, who also voted in favor of the ordinance, did not return messages seeking comment.

Background: Then-Mayor Kim Bracey signed the ordinance into law in late July 2017, and it took effect 30 days later.

At the time, York City was the fifth municipality in Pennsylvania to pass legislation decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.

The ordinance gives officers the option of issuing summary citations, akin to a traffic ticket, instead of arresting them for possessing or publicly using up to 30 grams of marijuana or 8 grams of hashish.

A first offense for possession carries a $100 fine, a second offense will draw a $250 fine and a third offense will bring a $500 fine.

The fines for using marijuana or hashish in public start at $150 for a first offense, with fines rising to $300 for a second offense and $600 for a third offense, according to the new regulation.

After three offenses in a five-year span, all further offenses will be treated as criminal infractions under the new ordinance.

York City's decriminalization ordinance represents a mix of elements in the other municipalities' ordinances, but its rising scale of fines is unique in Pennsylvania.

Ordinance: At the time it was passed, then-Police Chief Wes Kahley said he had no problems with the ordinance. He said it is more "expedient" and efficient for an officer to issue a citation than to arrest someone.

Bankert declined to share his thoughts on the ordinance. 

"We follow what the law says," he said.

Bankert stressed that officers have the discretion to decide whether to charge or cite for simple marijuana possession.

Sabol, the city's solicitor, also noted the ordinance doesn't require officers to cite rather than criminally charging for simple marijuana possession.

“There’s nothing in our local ordinance that directs the police or requires the police to charge under this ordinance or the state statute," Sabol said.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.