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On June 2, 2015, the Milwaukee Common Council is scheduled to decide whether to reduce the maximum city portion of the fine for possession of a sandwich-size bag of marijuana.
That portion of the total fine -- known formally as a forfeiture -- would be a maximum of $50, down from the current limit of $500.
When the council debated the proposed ordinance change on May 12, 2015, it was opposed by Ald. Robert Puente, who served for 27 years on the Milwaukee police force.
"We have 23 different bicycle violations that have a higher forfeiture than this," said Puente, before adding: "I just think this is really disproportionate."
Is that right?
If the council approves reducing the maximum forfeiture for marijuana possession, would it be lower than the forfeiture for 23 bicycle violations?
When you get a ticket, think of the amount shown on the ticket as the fine. The total fine is composed of various parts. Those parts include the forfeiture, the part cited by Puente, which is paid to the city’s general fund. Added to that are various city, county and state fees and surcharges.
In Milwaukee, the Common Council sets not only the range of forfeiture amounts for a given violation, but also a standard forfeiture amount that should be imposed in most cases. Those standard forfeiture amounts are reviewed regularly and can be adjusted within the range.
Let’s start with marijuana as an example.
The city ordinance applies to possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana. Twenty-five grams is slightly less than 1 ounce (0.88), or roughly a sandwich bag full of marijuana.
Currently, the minimum forfeiture for marijuana possession is $250 and the maximum is $500. The standard forfeiture amount is $265.87.
In other words, the forfeiture amount of the fine you’re given for marijuana possession typically would be $265.87. But the judge in your case could reduce the forfeiture portion to $250 -- or, in rare circumstances, increase the forfeiture.
Ald. Nik Kovac has led the effort to reduce the marijuana possession forfeitures. He has said African-Americans in Milwaukee are cited for marijuana possession much more often than other people. And he has argued that the disproportionate jailing of black men is due in part to those who are ticketed for marijuana possession and end up in jail because they can’t pay the forfeiture and fees.
Kovac’s initial proposal, in September 2014, was to reduce the forfeiture range dramatically. The minimum would have been $1 and the maximum $5.
But his proposed range was later amended to zero to $50 -- which is what the council is being asked to approve.
The Milwaukee Municipal Court, in a May 26, 2015 memo signed by the three municipal judges, opposes lowering the $500 maximum. But it suggests reducing the minimum from $250 to zero. That way, the judges would have more flexibility, being able to impose forfeitures anywhere from zero to $500.
The memo also made two other points:
1. Since 2012, municipal judges have issued only 12 orders for incarceration for marijuana possession and only eight of those individuals actually served time in jail.
2. Setting a maximum forfeiture for marijuana possession that is lower than that for many other violations "that are arguably less serious" would "send the wrong message to our community."
As for the 23 bicycle violations cited by Puente, they include abandonment of a bicycle, failure to comply with a traffic signal and brakes not in good working condition.
Nine of the violations carry a maximum forfeiture of $500 -- much higher than the $50 maximum for marijuana, should the marijuana ordinance be changed.
But as a practical matter, the standard forfeiture for all 23 bike violations is only $20.
Puente said if Milwaukee approves reducing its maximum forfeiture for marijuana possession to $50, the city would have "23 different bicycle violations that have a higher forfeiture."
In practice, the actual forfeiture that is imposed for the 23 bicycle violations is only $20. However, the maximum forfeiture for nine of those violations is $500.
For a statement that is partially accurate, we rate Puente’s claim Half True.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Milwaukee aldermen delay action on lowering pot fines," May 12, 2015
Email exchange, City of Milwaukee public information manager Bill Arnold, May 14, 2015
City of Milwaukee, video of Milwaukee Common Council meeting (Puente quote at 1:11:00), May 12, 2015
Milwaukee Common Council, File 140697 (marijuana ordinance change proposal)
Public Policy Forum, "Marijuana in Milwaukee," May 2015
Email exchange, Public Policy Forum president Rob Henken, May 29, 2015
Milwaukee Legislative Reference Bureau, "Municipal Court Non-Traffic Deposit Schedule"
Interview, Milwaukee Municipal Court chief court administrator Sheldyn Himle, June 1, 2015
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