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$100K problem: Half of marijuana tickets in Grand Rapids going unpaid

Jun 30, 2015


MLive -    GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Barely half of the people ticketed for marijuana possession are paying their fines.

More than $100,000 in civil infraction fines has gone uncollected since voters decriminalized the drug, according to Grand Rapids District Court data. Several hundred offenders haven't paid up, prompting the court to consider enforcing non-response to tickets as a misdemeanor crime.
"We are looking at this point in time at some statutory provisions that will allow us to take some additional enforcement," said Gary Secor, court administrator. "We don't have any recourse (right now) on these municipal civil infractions for marijuana. If they don't pay, they don't pay."
Grand Rapids voters in 2012 decriminalized marijuana possession and use, making it a civil infraction instead of a misdemeanor crime. Marijuana is still illegal, but it's no longer a criminal offense.
Instead, offenders get a $25 fine for a first offense, $50 for a second offense and $100 for a third offense.
The district court typically collects about 80 percent of civil infraction fines for offenses like housing code violations, barking dogs and fireworks, Secor said. But far fewer marijuana offenders pay up.
So far this year, there are 261 unpaid marijuana tickets. That's 10 times more than the civil infraction, municipal housing code violation, with the next highest number of non-payments.
Unlike a traffic ticket that can be referred to the Secretary of State for additional penalties of non-payment, there's little the court can do to enforce payment of a marijuana ticket - aside from sending out reminder notices, Secor said.
More than $24,000 in marijuana fines have gone unpaid so far this year. In 2014, more than $42,000 of marijuana tickets went unpaid – about 47 percent of the fines. While 567 marijuana offenders paid up and another 106 are making payments, 356 offenders from 2014 haven't paid a penny, according to court data.
The collection rate was even lower during the last eight months of 2013 after decriminalization took effect. While about $36,000 in marijuana fines were paid, almost $38,000 went unpaid.
"We need to collect that," said First Ward City Commissioner Walt Gutowski, chairman of the city's fiscal committee. "I'm a business person. Can you imagine any business person sending out a bill to their customer and the customer not paying it and saying 'OK, not going to worry about it?'
"It's just not acceptable. We need to do something so those fines can be retrieved."
The newly-approved city budget that takes effect in July includes a $4.5 million subsidy for the court.
In 2012, the last full year of enforcing marijuana use and possession as a misdemeanor crime, the district court collected $225,000 in fines. The court last year collected about $48,000 in marijuana fines.
Including other civil infractions, the court in 2014 took in more than $2 million in fines. Marijuana fines accounted for about 2 percent of that total.
Secor said "it really doesn't make sense from a business model" to chase after every $25 marijuana fine (which, after court costs, is more like $75). But the court may start sending out postcards that cite this clause in a 54-year-old state statute: "A defendant who fails to answer a citation ... for a municipal civil infraction is guilty of a misdemeanor."

“If you choose to consume, please do so responsibly.” 

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