Dazed and confused

Pub date May 19, 2009


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. Modeled after New York City’s Center for Court Innovation, it serves as a one-stop location for the court to refer offenders to social services to address the root causes of criminal behavior — although those programs dealing with substance abuse, mental health treatment, and other social needs are also on the budget chopping block.

CJC only handled violations in four selected central neighborhoods deemed to be burdened by chronic crime: the Tenderloin, SoMa, Civic Center, and Union Square communities. Capt. Gary Jimenez of the Tenderloin Police Station could not be reached for an extensive interview, but told the Guardian that his officers are simply enforcing the law by citing offenders and referring such cases to the CJC.

CJC coordinator Tomiquia Moss has weighed in by facilitating talks between Adachi and Deputy Chief of Police Kevin Cashman, who sits on the CJC advisory board to address which cases get referred. While all 17 of the pot cases have been dismissed at the CJC, Moss believes that Adachi must continue to communicate with Tenderloin police officers to advise on citation referrals. "We don’t have any impact on how the police department administers enforcement," she said. "We can only be responsible for what happens to the case once it gets here."

Moss takes pride in the CJC for providing services even to clients whose cases are dismissed. She believes that almost all the people who have been referred to the CJC accept assistance because caseworkers are respectful and culturally competent, although she has yet to compile comprehensive statistics on CJC cases.

To get a sense on of the big picture at CJC, the Guardian reviewed a report from the Coalition on Homelessness based on the court’s calendar for its first two months in existence. Out of 336 total cases between March 4 and May 1, 100 (30 percent) were for sleeping outside; 71 (21 percent) were for possession of a crack pipe; and 99 (29 percent) were "public nuisance" citations to the court, a subjective violation often given with another citation such as obstructing the sidewalk.

However, among the pending cases that faced trial, the CJC reports that more severe crimes like theft, fraud, disorderly conduct, possession with intent to sell drugs, and soliciting drugs — cases routinely heard in other courtrooms — make up the majority.

Moss acknowledged the limitations of the CJC during tight budget times. "We anticipate people not being able to get all their needs met because there aren’t enough funds. Services are in jeopardy … You gotta consolidate. You have higher client-to-service-provider ratios. It’s a significant issue."

If the CJC is to continue operating with limited resources, Adachi and homeless advocates say Tenderloin police need to focus their resources on serious crimes, rather than quality of life violations that predominately criminalize the homeless.

Bob Offer-Westort, the civil rights organizer for Coalition on Homelessness and coordinating editor of the local paper Street Sheet, says it’s a shame to continue funding the CJC while service centers like the Tenderloin Health drop-in center are being closed due to budget cuts. Offer-Westort acknowledges the laudable social services provided at the CJC, but said "its front-end is conducted by law enforcement officers" who treat it as a "homeless court".

While Newsom hoped the CJC would be popular with city residents concerned about the homeless, 57 percent of San Franciscan voters weighed in last November against allocating extra funding to the CJC with Proposition L.

Although the mayor is proposing a 25 percent cut in the public defender’s budget, Adachi fears this would mean firing 38 lawyers, or one-third of his staff. This could translate to a withdrawal from representing approximately 6,000 clients at his office. In turn, low-income defendants stretched thin by the economic crisis would have to turn to being assigned to private lawyers with costly hourly rates that will still have to be paid for by the city.

Adachi told the Guardian that the marijuana possession cases at the CJC represent the benign types of cases squeezing his office dry, and that Newsom still has not provided Adachi with the two lawyers he promised to handle CJC cases. Newsom’s spokesperson, Nathan Ballard, would not comment on the cases going to the CJC, telling the Guardian, "I’m not going to play along."

Bruce Mirken, communications director of the Marijuana Policy Project, sees San Francisco’s use of scarce resources for marijuana cases as parallel to state and federal policy. "In a sense, it’s a small piece of a larger puzzle, which is that we waste billions and billions of dollars every year in tax money that could be being used for schools, roads, healthcare, etc. in arresting and prosecuting people for possession of a drug that’s safer than alcohol. It’s just crazy, it’s pointless, and every dollar spent on it is a dollar wasted — particularly when government is strapped for cash and cutting vital services to try to balance the budget."

The city and state continue to reassess their marijuana regulations and enforcement on a broader scale. In April, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi proposed legislation allowing the city to sell medical marijuana through the Department of Public Health. And in March, Assembly Member Ammiano began pushing for the state to legalize and tax marijuana.

In the meantime, the CJC, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office are still stretching their resources to handle small possession of marijuana cases cited by Tenderloin police station — in spite of the city’s stated priorities. And homeless individuals continue to get cited for quality of life violations while city workers providing social services see their budgets running dry.