San Mateo County sees ‘dramatic drop’ in pot busts 

Prosecutions for adult marijuana possession in San Mateo County dropped by two-thirds in the first three months of 2011 as the head of the countywide police chiefs association says the crime has become less of a priority for law enforcement.

The decline in minor pot possession cases comes in the wake of Senate Bill 1449, which went into effect Jan. 1 and downgraded the crime from a misdemeanor to an infraction, similar to a traffic ticket.

Click picture for more data on pot-related arrests.

The penalty is the same — $100 fine with no potential jail time — and prosecutors still review the evidence before filing the case. But the defendants now face a court commissioner instead of a trial judge and are no longer entitled to a court-appointed attorney or a jury trial at taxpayer expense.

Through March 31, prosecutors have filed 41 cases against adults for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, according to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, who ran the numbers at the request of The San Francisco Examiner. By contrast, Wagstaffe’s office filed 144 cases for that crime during the same period in 2010 and 129 such cases in 2009, which Wagstaffe called “a dramatic drop.”

Asked about the statistics, county Police Chiefs Association President Don Mattei said police officers are increasingly using discretion for adult pot possession violations in response to the law change and shrinking police resources.

“My sense is it’s not important to the Legislature, the state of California and the people, and we’re just reacting to those things,” said Mattei, Belmont’s police chief. “How much time are you going to put into this and what are you trying to do?”

Mattei emphasized that police are still serious about growing operations and juvenile drug use. County voters opposed last year’s failed legalization measure Proposition 19 by 51.6 percent.

The changes may portend a drop in arrests for pot possession, which rose in San Mateo County from 385 in 2005 to 707 in 2009, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Supervisors for the Sheriff’s Office, Burlingame and Redwood City all said they haven’t noticed a major change in use of resources for enforcement since the new law took effect.

Wagstaffe and John Digiacinto, chief of the private defender program, both agree the shift to an infraction will mean minimal savings for the legal system — in previous years, all but a handful of cases resulted in plea bargains before they got to a costly jury trial.

Still, Digiacinto said he thinks the change is appropriate and “an efficient use of public resources.”

He guessed the decline in prosecutions reflects shorter-staffed police agencies trying to best serve the community.

“They have bigger fish to fry,” he said.

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