San Antonio – A San Antonio city councilman says it’s time to consider adopting a “formal” cite-and-release program for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but activists see his request as a cynical move to get ahead of broader action.
Though San Antonio already participates in a cite-and-release program, it wasn’t passed by city council, and District 8 Councilman Manny Pelaez says it’s time to “codify something.”
“We’re hearing community groups agitating for it to finally become something more formal,” Pelaez told KSAT. “Heard them loud and clear.”
Though he may have heard them, some of those groups don’t think Pelaez is heeding them.
SA Stands is a coalition of groups working toward getting city council to formalize a cite-and-release program, fearing that a new police chief or district attorney could discard the current policy.
However, the coalition wants to ensure the full array of misdemeanor charges eligible under Texas law for cite-and-release are included, not just pot possession.
And with Pelaez submitting his council consideration request (CCR), which asks for city staff to present a program specifically for cases of marijuana possession -- just one day after meeting with SA Stands members -- the coalition smells a rat.
“Councilman Pelaez made a calculated move to undercut years of work by the community- including his own constituents- on cite and release,” Ananda Tomas, the executive director of Act 4 SA and a member of SA Stands, said in a news release.
The San Antonio Police Department has taken part in a cite-and-release program, in conjunction with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, since 2019. SAPD officers who stop someone for one of several Class A or B misdemeanors can decide to give them a citation, rather than arrest them.
Afterward, the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office can review the person’s case and allow them to pursue a “diversion track” that would keep the offense off the person’s record, or the DA’s Office can still file charges in court.
The program covers marijuana possession charges up to four ounces, but also offenses like minor thefts from businesses, minor vandalism, and driving with an invalid license. Graffiti charges, though eligible for the program under state law, are not included in Bexar County’s program.
Though cite-and-release has helped to drastically reduce the number of marijuana possession cases prosecuted in the county, it doesn’t mean every citation-eligible case gets a pass.
SAPD’s cite-and-release online dashboard shows that, in the first nine months of 2021, people suspected of citation-eligible offenses were still booked 67.7% of the time -- most often because they had warrants for their arrest or multiple charges.
Pelaez said he and former District 2 Councilman William “Cruz” Shaw, who had both worked as criminal defense attorneys, “began a conversation at City Council about cite-and-release for marijuana” when they were elected in 2017.
“What we have in place right now was an initial pilot program where Chief McManus has heard these conversations that we were having with him and with the rest of council, and he said, ‘Then let’s bake it into the police manual.’ And he did,” Pelaez told KSAT.
Major policy requires discussion. Pelaez said he wants to bring in a wide variety of groups and people to shape a formal cite-and-release program, including: neighborhood associations, criminal defense and immigration attorneys, immigrant service organizations, mental health experts, and legal services agencies.
Asked whether Pelaez’s intention of a “formal” program meant passing it as an ordinance, a spokeswoman told KSAT that the councilman was not ready to say just yet.
ONLY POT FOR PELAEZ
However, Pelaez only wants to focus cite-and-release on marijuana possession, which he calls the “lowest-hanging fruit.”
“The majority of the states have decriminalized marijuana,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of Americans think that arrests for minor possession of marijuana are pointless.”
The District 8 councilman believes it’s not the right time to include other offenses like criminal mischief or shoplifting.
“I’m not going to be the city council member who tells the restaurant industry or the convenience store industry that we’re going to make it easier or less severe for someone to come and take something as opposed to paying for it,” Pelaez said.
The marijuana-only approach does not sit well with SA Stands.
“What Councilman Pelaez has brought forth is really a hollow, watered-down policy that does little to save community members from the high cost of arrest, not only in terms of money but their own time, their own freedom, time away from the family,” Tomas told KSAT on Friday, “and is still not addressing officers who have said that they would rather give out a citation for low-level offenses because it is so costly and timely to them and their job and their response time, as well, to other active crimes that are more serious.”
“BACKHANDED” AND “SHADY”
Tomas said SA Stands has been working to craft its own CCR, which a council member would still have to put forward under his or her name.
The group met with Pelaez on Monday, Tomas said, and while the councilman made it clear he didn’t support including all citation-eligible offenses, “at no point during the conversation did he say that he was going to submit his own CCR.”
“We did know that he was really only supportive of marijuana-only offenses, but it was very backhanded and we felt like shady for him to not let us know that this was something his office had been working on,” Tomas said.
Pelaez, however, told KSAT his office had not been working on a CCR, and he only decided to file one after the meeting.
“They made it clear that it was urgent for them, that they were frustrated with the way -- they made it clear that they want -- that four years is enough time to suss out, you know, whether this program works. I made it clear to them that I’m willing to be their partner on a marijuana-only CCR. They rejected that offer, and I went home, thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, then I’ll write my own CCR, right?’ I’m not beholden to anybody else’s script. I’m not beholden to anybody else’s CCR. There’s a First Amendment right that they have, and that I have to file whatever I think is appropriate. And I got four other City Council members who agreed with me,” Pelaez said.
Every CCR needs five council members to sign onto it before it can be submitted, and by 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Pelaez had found his four co-signers: District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo, District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha-Garcia, District 9 Councilman John Courage, and District 6 Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda, who is also the chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee.
CCRs are first taken up by the Governance Committee, chaired by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who also sets the schedule. In all likelihood, it will be a few months before this shows up on the committee’s agenda.
In the meantime, Tomas said the SA Stands intends to push forward with a CCR that encompasses all eligible offenses. Pelaez said he encourages them to keep talking.
“There’s nothing to stop SA Stands, who I think are very well-intentioned and very smart people -- nothing to stop them from coming and talking to us and convincing city council to add more to my proposal,” Pelaez said. “There’s nothing to stop them from asking city council to modify whatever it is I propose, and there’s nothing to stop them from going and convincing other city council members from getting a signature.”
The coalition has been working with District 2 Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, who told KSAT he believes there is an opportunity to expand upon the marijuana-only CCR that Pelaez filed.
“I think we’re looking at our options right now,” McKee-Rodriguez said Friday. “We had a conversation. We’ve had extensive conversations with the city attorney before Manny filed his CCR, and we’ve recently had a conversation since. We’re going to look at what’s best if it if that means filing a new CCR or a separate one, we’ll do that. But I think we can do something with this.”