It was July 26 in the Cook County misdemeanor court at Harrison and Kedzie, but it could have been any day. The docket's always heavy with marijuana cases.
Fourteen of the 78 cases that morning—nearly one of every five—involved cannabis, amounting to a steady parade of young black men coming before the judge to answer accusations about possessing less than an ounce of pot.
As we reported last month, there's a grass gap in Chicago: the ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession is 15 to 1. Yet studies—and common sense—will tell you that usage rates for blacks and whites are about the same.
Not only does the racial disparity get even more pronounced in the prosecution and sentencing process—blacks account for 89 percent of all convictions and guilty pleas for pot possession in Chicago—but punishment varies widely. For the last few weeks we've been visiting courthouses around the city, reviewing case files, and talking with judges, lawyers, and defendants. What we've found, in addition to the racial divide, is that the overflow of cases has led to an erratic enforcement of the law. Con men know how to slide through the system, and armed dealers sometimes face lesser penalties than people randomly caught on the street with a few bucks' worth of weed.
The cost of prosecuting these cases and incarcerating defendants has sparked a debate between Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who favors decriminalization, and Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy, who vows to continue enforcement. (See sidebar.)
In addition, it's not clear what pot laws and prosecutions are accomplishing. When we asked Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez, she said candidly, "I'm struggling with that question. It's the law, and we have to follow the law." Maureen Biggane, a spokeswoman for McCarthy, didn't respond directly, saying in a written statement that police officers are working "to ensure criminal activity and quality of life issues are effectively addressed."
The answer isn't ambiguous to defense attorney Chelsey Robinson. "The only thing it actually does is build up the record of these kids who are caught," said Robinson, who provides legal services in Chicago's misdemeanor courts through the Cook County Bar Association. "It's not deterring anybody and it's wasting the courts' time and resources."
As every defense lawyer knows, most of the busts don't proceed very far in the court system—around 90 percent are essentially tossed out, typically when the arresting officers don't show up in court. But poor or unlucky offenders can end up with jail time. It's common to see sheriff's deputies lead arrestees who failed to post bond out of the lockup and into the courtroom, where they plead guilty in return for a sentence of time served—just to get out of the system ASAP. Once again, almost all of them are black.
Here are the stories of three people whose experiences illustrate the often quirky and capricious way that marijuana laws are enforced in Chicago (which is why we're withholding their last names).
THE REPEAT OFFENDER
On June 22, Alvino was in court—again. And, wanting to get out of there as soon as he could, he was looking to cut a deal.
"I work every day at a grocery store," he said. "And I can't win this."
Alvino, 30, was in the misdemeanor courthouse at 51st and Wentworth to face charges of possessing marijuana and assaulting a police officer. A few weeks earlier he'd been arrested when police were trying to break up what they described as "a large disturbance/riot/brawl" near 63rd and May.
According to the police report, Alvino approached one of the cops "with clenched fists" and declared, "I'm gonna beat the fuck out of you."
The police report states that the officer tackled Alvino, placed him under arrest, and found a baggie in his pocket containing about one gram of marijuana with an estimated street value of $5.
"It was my weed," Alvino acknowledged.
But he had a different account of his run-in with the cops: "Fighting with the police? No one does that in America. I was going to the liquor store to buy something to drink and get a blunt for my weed. Some other guys were out there fighting and they just picked me out of the crowd." He spent a day in jail before being released.
It wasn't his first run-in with the authorities. In fact, Alvino appears to be the kind of troublemaker cops want to arrest for marijuana possession just to get them off the street.
The thing is, pot busts haven't kept Alvino out of trouble. Between 1998 and 2003, according to court records, he was charged five times with possession of marijuana and two other times with the intent to manufacture or deliver it—in other words, with dealing. He sat in jail for a couple of days on two occasions.
In 2003, Alvino was convicted of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon—that is, illegally carrying a gun. He served less than a year in state prison.
When he was released, Alvino returned to his old ways. In 2005, 2007, and twice in 2008, he was arrested and charged with marijuana possession.
And each time the arresting officers failed to show up in court and the cases were dismissed.
On his June 22 court day, Alvino had a choice: he could fight the assault charge but risk being sentenced to more time in jail, or he could accept the prosecutor's offer to plead guilty to assault in exchange for dropping the marijuana charge and walking out.
His public defender urged him to fight. But Alvino couldn't stand the thought of spending any more time in court, much less jail. He took the deal and pleaded guilty to a crime he says he never committed, adding another conviction to his record.
"I'm supposed to be at work right now," he said as he hurried out of the courtroom.
Devon said the pot wasn't his.
"My brother had the marijuana and we got picked up together," said Devon, a 33-year-old west-sider. "Where I come from we don't turn on each other." On the evening of March 4, he and his brother were walking to a friend's house at Kostner and West End when a police car pulled up. "They said we looked suspicious and it's a 'high drug area,'" Devon said. "That's how they do it—they just pull over and take you down."
According to Devon, the cops searched them and found a couple baggies of weed in his brother's pocket. They arrested both men on marijuana charges and took them into the station, where they were locked up for several hours before being released on an I-bond, which means they were given a court date but didn't have to post any bail.
Once again, the police account is a little different.
The officers reported that they saw Devon's brother reach into his pocket as he stood outside an apartment building on West End and heard him say, "Damn police."
Concluding that they'd witnessed a drug transaction, the cops got out of the car to investigate. Devon's brother wasn't up for conversation—he hurried into the building. The officers chased after him, and as he tried to unlock the front door, he dropped three baggies of marijuana to the ground, the police said.
As the officers were arresting Devon's brother, they saw Devon scoop more marijuana off the living room table and "run to the bathroom where he was detained flushing said suspect cannabis in the toilet," according to the police report.
The cops said they then "recovered from said toilet 6 ziplock baggies" of marijuana. The estimated street value of the nearly flushed pot: $60.
Devon wound up appearing before a judge at the misdemeanor courthouse at Harrison and Kedzie in April. Due to his relatively clean record—his only previous conviction was for drinking alcohol in the public way—prosecutors agreed not to press for jail time or a fine if Devon attended four drug-education classes. He did, and in July the judge ruled the case closed, although the arrest remains on his record.
Ironically, the charges against his brother were dropped altogether when the police didn't show up for his brother's court date, which was on a different day.
The experience left Devon frustrated. "If you do keep getting in trouble like this, after a while you get a record and you can't get no job," he said. "All you can do is sell drugs."
Lawrence has been arrested for marijuana possession so many times that he can't recall the exact number. His trips to court have given him a sense of how to play the system, but in this most recent instance he might have been too smart for his own good.
With a warrant in hand, police showed up at his family's Ravenswood apartment on March 9. When they asked him who he was, Lawrence—worried there was a warrant outstanding for one of his previous arrests—lied and gave them his brother's name.
The warrant they were trying to serve was actually for his brother. Realizing his blunder, Lawrence finally told the police he was really Lawrence. The cops charged him with obstructing information, a misdemeanor. He spent an evening in police lockup.
But Lawrence skipped his April court date, and this time a warrant really was issued for his arrest. He was picked up a week later and had to post a $300 bond.
When Lawrence was back in court on August 2, he asked for a continuance so he could hire another lawyer. "I want to get proper counsel," he said.
The judge told Lawrence to sit down and think about it. Lawrence then went out to the lobby and made a call on his cell phone. A few minutes later, the judge announced that a message had been left for him from an attorney who was interested in representing Lawrence. He told Lawrence to be back in court with the attorney the next morning.
The next morning Lawrence was there, but without the lawyer. "My father called his office," Lawrence said. "But he didn't come and I've been trying all morning to reach him."
The judge decided to give Lawrence until September to hire an attorney. He told Lawrence to get right on it.
Outside the courtroom, Lawrence expressed annoyance that the case hadn't simply been dismissed. "I'm trying to relocate to Indiana in a couple of weeks," he said. "Now I've got this hanging over my head."