Judge Seeks $5,000 Slap on Pot Smokers!

Judge Seeks $5,000 Slap on Pot Smokers!
Posted by FoM on February 11, 1999 at 06:41:54 PT

Confident that his crackdown on marijuana smokers with maximum $2,000 fines is causing potential users to think twice, Brookfield's municipal court judge wants the stakes more than doubled. 
Judge Richard J. Steinberg said if the $2,000 fine is getting the attention of pot smokers, the threat of a $5,000 maximum fine might have a bigger impact still. He suggested adopting the higher fine to the city attorney's office this week. "I have gotten some feel from around the community and even outside the community . . . and they've all been supportive of it," Steinberg said, "and many people have said, 'Charge them more.' " But not everyone, including the city's police chief, is convinced that such a huge jump in the fine will be of value in deterring marijuana use. "To me, I don't see any increased benefit from doing that," Chief Robert Jacobs said. "If a kid doesn't care about the $2,000, they're not going to care about the $5,000, either." Jacobs said he has not heard any comments from his staff that the potential of a $2,000 fine has deterred marijuana use in the city. In communities with municipal marijuana laws, busts involving smaller amounts -- typically a gram or less in Waukesha County -- are prosecuted as municipal violations. In the city of Waukesha, for example, some caught with a small amount of marijuana can resolve the case by forfeiting $218.50 before the court date. Before Steinberg's get-tough approach began early last year, people found with marijuana in Brookfield were issued a citation much like a traffic ticket, paying a fine as low as $269 and receiving no other penalty or counseling. But over the past year, Steinberg has imposed the maximum $2,000 fine 16 times on people caught with marijuana in Brookfield. He said the big fine -- which is part of a crackdown that includes a mandatory court appearance for all and a community service sentence for those receiving lesser fines -- was spurred by what he considered a growing nonchalance among those caught with the drug. Steinberg said the fine is justified by the drugged-driving dangers posed by marijuana users. He also says that drug use leads to other crimes. "There is a philosophy, which is my philosophy, that a community should be drug-free," Steinberg said. Steinberg also says that if unrepentant marijuana users can afford to buy the drug, they can afford a big fine when they are caught with it. He cited one instance in which a man in his court willingly paid the $2,000 fine rather than accept a smaller forfeiture in conjunction with community service and drug testing. "They have the money," he said. Despite those arguments, some involved with Brookfield's local laws and court system question whether $5,000 is excessive. Anyone deserving a fine that large probably should be prosecuted in criminal court instead of municipal court, they said. "From two grand up to five grand -- that's quite a jump," said Brookfield Ald. Michael Jakus, an attorney who is chairman of the Common Council panel that sets the level of municipal fines and forfeitures. "We're going to have to have a presentation to the Legislative Committee on the need for that." Brookfield criminal defense attorney Jerome Buting said that while he understood "the judge's frustration and concern," he is opposed to such a large fine for small-time marijuana possession cases. He said even defendants facing more-serious drug charges in criminal court often do not receive fines. "Usually because fines aren't a deterrent. If anything, it tends to force people to go out and get money illegally to pay the fine," Buting said. Steinberg said he has heard from other attorneys and school officials that his low tolerance for marijuana use is having an impact on young people. The $2,000 fine typically is reserved for those with indifferent attitudes or criminal records, or those with "the arrogance" not to show up in court at all, he said. But Steinberg makes many of the offenders -- especially teens and young adults -- perform community service and get drug testing and counseling as an alternative to the maximum fine. Still, they often must pay court costs of at least $400. One local official who thinks Steinberg's tough approach with marijuana users has had a positive impact is Elmbrook Schools Superintendent Matthew Gibson. "I think that message has gone out and it has been a deterrent," Gibson said. "In fact, one student stopped to talk with me, and he told me about his major fine. He told me some stories about students within his high school. I know it's filtered through the student body." Steinberg said his ultimate goal is to prevent and stop drug use. To that end, Steinberg said, he believes the $5,000 fine can make some headway. "It's for grievous offenses," he said, "and drugs are one of them." 
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