If you are caught with less than one gram of crack-cocaine, it is a crime. But if you are caught in Harris County, you’ll likely be let off with nothing more than a stern warning and a dirty look from the police. This is because Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has stopped prosecuting for such offenses, an action that has the police up in arms.
Possessing less than one gram or even a trace of crack in a crack pipe used to warrant an immediate arrest and a felony charge. But many within the local criminal justice community, police notwithstanding, saw these arrests as a misuse of limited resources and even a failure to the users it locked up.
The policy changed on January 1, 2010. In 2009, there were 10,674 charges for this offense in the DA’s office. In 2010, that number was 5,942. So far in 2011, there are just 5,235. Authorities say the policy has reduced the local jail population by around 400 inmates on any given day, freeing up the limited space for suspects accused of crimes that threaten public safety.
Under the current policy, cops could issue a ticket for paraphernalia if they catch you with a crack pipe. But most officers don’t—they’d rather not deal with the paperwork and the hassle associated with a ticket when the penalty is only $500.
So, why do cops care about the new policy? They see it as a risk to safety and an open-door to future, more serious crimes. They want to use arrests for possession as sort of a preventative measure. They don’t care about the small amounts of drugs, they are worried what a crack-head might do if allowed to roam the streets.
“The residue cases are instrumental in putting people behind bars – people who commit burglary of a motor vehicle, burglary of a habitation, aggravated robberies, strong arm robberies, and they steal your cars,” said vice president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization Eric Baton.
The problem with this sort of “preventative” arrest is that it isn’t always foolproof and it undermines due process. You can’t arrest someone on the premise that they might commit a serious offense. You can only arrest people for the crime they’ve already committed. A small amount of crack, cocaine, or meth, simply doesn’t warrant a felony charge and the associated penalties. “Justice sometimes means that you look at a certain category of offenses and say ‘These don’t warrant the type of reaction that we’ve been applying to them,’” says Geoffrey Corn, of the South Texas School of Law.
Outside of Harris County, policies are different. Acting in accordance with state law, you can face very serious criminal charges for possessing a small amount of a controlled substance. If you are accused of a criminal drug offense, contact us to talk about your case and what can be done to minimize the consequences.