A marijuana decriminalization bill is expected to be introduced this week at the Harrisburg City Counsel legislative session. The bill would allow police to charge possession of a small amount of marijuana as a local ordinance summary offense with a $100 fine for a first offense and $200 fine for a second offense. Anyone unlucky enough to be caught a third time would be charged with the usual ungraded misdemeanor under the Pennsylvania Drug Device and Cosmetic Act. A "small amount" of marijuana in Pennsylvania is defined as less than 30 grams for personal use.
A teacher and football coach in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania has been charged with the summary offenses of criminal mischief and harassment, arising from a March 25, 2014, incident in which Pennsylvania State Police allege that 45 year old Michael C. Smith shoved a student into the wall of his classroom, breaking a thermostat. Police allege that Mr. Smith became angry when a 16 year old male juvenile farted in his classroom. Mr. Smith has since been suspended by the school district. What is unclear from media reports is whether the juvenile did it on purpose or under what circumstances, but one of Smith's supporters, who is a softball coach at another high school posted online "I guess the elephant in the room is, what do you do if a kid farted in your face?"
The marijuana decriminalization bill recently introduced by Pennsylvania State Senator Mike Stack is a nice first step, but does not address all the current problems caused by Prohibition. The bill would reduce possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use (less than 30 grams) to a summary offense for the first two offenses. Anyone unlucky enough to receive a third small amount of marijuana charge could be charged with an ungraded misdemeanor, at the discretion of the district attorney. Most Pennsylvania summary offenses are punishable by up to 90 days in jail, but Senator Stack's bill would eliminate the possibility of jail time for the first two convictions. Rather than jail time or probation, defendants would be subject to court costs and a fine not to exceed $500.
A Pennsylvania teen who broke into a woman's home by kicking in her front door will be charged only with criminal mischief, and more importantly, he is still alive. Earlier this week, 19 year old Cory R. Gootee of York County left a friend's house to smoke a cigarette. He was so intoxicated that he ended up trying to enter the wrong house. When he discovered the door was locked, he decided to kick it in, which would have been inappropriate even if it were his friend's house, but much worse when it is the home of an unsuspecting neighbor. A 31 year old woman was waiting at the door with her hand gun drawn when Gootee burst through her doorway. She commanded him to not come any closer, and called 911 to report a burglary in progress. Gootee retreated to his friend's front porch, where police found him. Gootee explained to the police that he was simply confused due to his intoxication, and the police found his story to be credible. Although he could have been charged with a second degree felony charge of criminal trespass, the victim asked police to charge Gootee only with the summary offense of criminal mischief, which entails destroying or damaging another person's property without permission.
While State Patty's Day mayhem is but a mere shell of its former self, it appears the tradition of IU Patty's Day is just gaining traction. Although the IUP student-created holiday has been around since 2012, it did not attract much notoriety until this past weekend, when things got out of hand. Videos show drunken young people blocking traffic, walking around with open containers of alcohol, jumping on cars, fighting, throwing objects and screaming and yelling.
Recently, Centre County, Pennsylvania defense attorneys received notice that the filing fees for expungements will increase from $15 to $75 effective January 2, 2014. The filing fee had remained at $15 for many years, even though it was costing the Clerk of Courts Office a lot more than $15 to handle the voluminous, bureaucratic paperwork and procedures associated with each expungement filing. With the increased fee, I suspect that the Centre County Clerk of Courts will go from losing money on expungements to making a small profit, which will offset losses in other areas.
Every experienced criminal defense lawyer has had his share of clients who managed to turn a mere summary offense into a serious felony like aggravated assault, based upon their interactions with law enforcement at the time of arrest. A common scenario involves a drunk Penn State student exhibiting the fight or flight instinct when confronted by the police for minor offenses like underage drinking, public drunkenness or urinating in public. While fighting a cop is obviously creates a no-win situation, running away is not a good choice either. When confronted by police, it is in the suspect's own best interests to be cooperative.
There are some peculiar glitches in Pennsylvania's marijuana laws. One such inconsistency is that possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, defined as less than 30 grams of cannabis, is an ungraded misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, yet the usual maximum penalty for an ungraded misdemeanor is up to one year incarceration and a $2,500 fine. By contrast, the maximum penalty for summary offenses under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code is 90 days in jail, with maximum fines ranging from $300 to $1,000. Thus, the maximum penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana in Pennsylvania are already less than the maximum penalty for summary offenses like underage drinking, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and criminal mischief. Despite this, possessing a small amount of marijuana is charged as a misdemeanor instead of a summary offense. You may wonder why reducing possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense is of any consequence, if the penalty is already less than the possible penalties for summary offenses. The simple reason is that misdemeanor convictions carry more collateral consequences than summary offense convictions. For example, all misdemeanors are fingerprintable offenses, while most summary offenses are not fingerprintable offenses. If you are charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana, you will be fingerprinted and photographed. You will then be in criminal data bases maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. Your marijuana possession charge will appear in every type of criminal background check. If you are merely convicted of a summary offense, your case will only come up in some, but not all criminal background checks. With the exception of retail theft, summary offense convictions will not appear in background checks, which cover only fingerprintable offenses, but they will come up in background checks performed by private companies, as these background check companies will find every docket sheet, uploaded by court systems onto the Internet.
As a criminal defense lawyer with an office two blocks away from Penn State University, I get calls every day from otherwise intelligent students who suffered a momentary lapse of judgment. Although most lapses of judgment occur when drunk, retail theft is a crime which is usually committed by sober people. Among college students, it tends to be a crime of opportunity with no pre-planning, while professional shoplifters, known as "boosters," have elaborate systems to avoid detection. Not surprisingly, it is the non-professionals who are most likely to be caught by store security.
Underpaid McDonald's workers seeking a living-wage have a stronger argument, at least in Halifax, Pennsylvania, where McDonald's employees recently made a "citizens arrest" of an intoxicated man who had driven to the fast food joint with his minor child in tow. In fact, given how many people drive drunk to McDonald's locations around the world, perhaps detaining DUI suspects should become a standard part of McDonald's training. The Mickey D's employees acted out of a concern for the safety of the child, and called police after detaining 32 year old Nicholas Apostolopoulos. And because a child was in the car, Apostolopoulos faces charges in addition to DUI.