Pinellas County Clerk of the Court Ken Burke appears to have taken an unexpected interest in a countywide effort to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense rather than criminal.
During a Pinellas County Commission meeting this month, Burke briefly weighed in on the issue saying the proposition being discussed may not be consistent with other minor offenses considered a misdemeanor. He listed open container laws as an example, asking whether that would still be a criminal offense under a proposed ordinance.
Then Burke continued that line of reasoning in a letter to Public Defender Bob Dillinger highlighting potential problems with an ordinance passed in Palm Beach County.
“Consider the case of two 19-year old boys sitting next to each other with one having a small amount of marijuana and the other having an open can of beer. With the Palm Beach County ordinance, the boy with the marijuana is eligible to receive a civil citation while the other with the can of beer is not and can be charged with a misdemeanor,” Burke wrote. “The boy with the marijuana simply pays a $100 fee which can be worked off with community service while the one with the open can of beer must go through the court process of hearings and a determination by a judge or jury. It would be difficult to explain the fairness of that to the parents of the 19-year old with the open can of beer.”
The letter, dated Dec. 21, invited Dillinger to participate in a task force evaluating a potential civil citation program. It listed the entire task force. Although the letter was also sent to County Commissioners, not one was invited to sit on the task force.
However, in an email sent to commissioners this week, Burke asked whether anyone should be added to the meeting scheduled for next week. The email also raised another concern with civil citation programs, again, involving Palm Beach County.
There, the sheriff said he would not comply with the civil citation ordinance and would continue arresting marijuana offenders.
Although Burke’s concerns seem to have merit – both issues he addresses in his correspondence have been brought up by others – it appears odd he would use his official capacity as Clerk of the Court to take up the matter.
As Clerk, Burke is charged with maintaining all court records, among other clerical duties. While a civil citation program could affect his office minimally, Burke’s day-to-day operations aren’t likely to be significantly affected.
Burke said that while his office may not seem to be affected, it’s where people go when there’s a problem in the court system.
“We’re like the complaint desk,” Burke said.
He compared it to the red-light camera program when he urged various agencies and boards to cancel programs. Why? Because when people were miffed about a red-light camera, they called his office.
Still, the task force may appear to undermine the County Commission. Burke did not mention a task force at the Dec. 15 meeting where civil citations were addressed nor did it include any County Commissioners.
It was also scheduled for early January while a workshop scheduled by the commission won’t be until March. Burke said he expects the task force to include a more broad conversation from a wider array of interested people than a workshop would afford. He said in his experience, workshops tend to include staff reports, not discussions among diverse groups.
Since sending the letter and email, Burke said Commissioner Janet Long would be attending the meeting.
Burke’s letter said the first meeting on Jan. 7 would be educational while a second and final meeting would yield a recommendation on how to proceed with or without a civil citation ordinance.
“How many bites of the apple to you get?” Burke asked. “Do you get two chances? Three chances? A chance every five years? I don’t know, those are all different options.”