A new city ordinance will allow Lancaster police to go a little easier on those caught with small amounts of marijuana.
Police in other parts of the county, though, have been showing more leniency to small-time offenders for some time — without having to decriminalize marijuana use through new ordinances.
Many officers in suburban and regional police departments here now issue summary citations for disorderly conduct to offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of hitting them with more serious misdemeanor possession charges.
The reason: It’s easier — both on the cops, and the pot users.
“It saves us time. Officers don’t have to go to hearings,” said Lititz Borough police Chief Kerry Nye. “It saves the defendant from having a misdemeanor charge on their record.”
The county’s top prosecutor doesn’t have a problem, either, with police using discretion in such cases.
“Police input is always important in every case because they often have inside information on individuals involved, which might not be apparent from documents and reports,” said Brett Hambright, a spokesman for District Attorney Craig Stedman.
The district attorney does, however, encourage police to use the county’s drug diversion program for misdemeanor offenders, which allows them to avoid trial and eventually have their charges dropped.
‘A common catch all’
Pennsylvania state law regards the possession of any amount of marijuana as a misdemeanor. The law also defines disorderly conduct as anything with intent to cause public inconvenience.
“It’s a common catch all,” Nye said.
It’s those small amounts, such as a joint, that lead police officers to use disorderly conduct for first-time offenders, according to Nye.
“Most of the time, people understand what’s going on,” Nye said. “They admit that they have marijuana in their possession.
“Most people are receptive of that, and they’re thankful we decided to go that route,” he said.
In 2017, Lititz police issued 25 disorderly conduct citations and 10 misdemeanors regarding marijuana possession.
Ephrata police Lt. Chris McKim called the misdemeanor process “long and manpower heavy,” and the disorderly conduct citation as “more efficient for the police, courts and the defendant.”
“Many circumstances would warrant the full attention of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences for those involved,” McKim said. “Some ... may be better handled at a lower level. The disorderly conduct charge makes that possible.”
Quarryville Borough Chief Clark Bearinger said his department typically brings the misdemeanor charge.
“We use discretion,” he said. “There have been occasions where a disorderly conduct citation was used.”
In the northern part of the county, Chief Mark Mayberry of Northwest Lancaster County Police Department, also said officers make the decision “case by case.”
State police, however, use the misdemeanor charge, according to Trooper James Spencer. He noted it's often pleaded down to a disorderly conduct citation with the help of a defense attorney.
And Lancaster city police officers haven’t been using a disorderly conduct citation for possession of marijuana, according to Lt. Bill Hickey.
The newly enacted summary offense is supposed to begin this month. When it’s in effect, officers will still have the option of filing a misdemeanor offense.
Ordinances outside the city
Bearinger said he’s heard that other municipalities are interested in adopting an ordinance like Lancaster city’s.
One reason for doing that would be that fines for violating municipal ordinances are paid to the municipality, according to state law.
Manor Township police Chief Todd Graeff cited that reason while discussing a possession of marijuana ordinance at a supervisors’ meeting in August, according to LNP records.
At least one municipality, Millersville, already has an ordinance similar to Lancaster city's new policy.
The 2015 ordinance included possessing an ounce or less of marijuana within the borough as a summary offense, according to borough code.
“When our officers find someone with less than an ounce, they have the option of going with state code or the summary offense of the borough code,” according to Millersville Police Department Chief John Rochat.
Millersville’s ordinance states that a summary conviction leads to a fine of not less than $300 nor more than $1,000 for a first offense plus the cost of prosecution. Prison time could be up to 30 days, he said.