Does Philadelphia’s Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession Change State Law

I am sure that many people have seen that Philadelphia is in the process of de-criminalizing the possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana for personal use. Decriminalization does not mean that marijuana possession is now completely legal in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania laws that prohibit the possession of marijuana for personal use are still valid and enforceable across the state of Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia. The Philadelphia law adds a civil, meaning non-criminal charge, of marijuana possession that can be filed by the officer. It is up to the officer whether he or she issues a civil citation for possession of less than 30 grams of weed or instead files the misdemeanor criminal charge under 35 P.S. §  780-113(a)(31).

A conviction of the criminal charge of Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana is punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $500.00 fine, and results in a Pennsylvania license suspension. The charge is also a misdemeanor offense, so a conviction would appear on criminal background searches and could impact a person’s ability to receive student loans in the future. The civil citation in Philadelphia would face a fine of $25.00 but would not have any criminal record. The $25.00 fine is probably misleading in that court costs and fees will be added, so the total bill would probably be between $100.00 and $150.00, but the civil penalties are obviously much lower than the penalties for the criminal charge.

Officer Discretion in Filing Criminal Charges

The new Philadelphia marijuana possession law is a great example of the charging discretion that is given to police officers. If a suspect is cooperative with the officer, the officer is more inclined to issue the civil citation instead of filing criminal charges and arresting the individual. In State College, officers often exercise the same types of discretion. For example, everyone knows that it is illegal to urinate in public. In such situations in State College, the officers can file a non-criminal charge of Public Urination that is a violation of a State College Borough Ordinance or a criminal, non-traffic summary citation of Disorderly Conduct. The Public Urination ordinance violation carries a high fine, but, in my opinion, it is not a “criminal offense” as the charge is not set forth in the Crimes Code.

Summary Convictions Appear on Background Searches

Some attorneys argue that summary charges such as Disorderly Conduct, Underage Drinking, Public Drunkenness, and Possession of a Fake ID Card are not “criminal offenses.” In my opinion, such offenses are “crimes” because they are contained in the Crimes Code of Pennsylvania. To an extent, it doesn’t matter what other attorneys or I think. Instead, it matters what prospective employers think. Summary convictions are appearing on many background searches, so employers are considering such convictions as part of the hiring process. In one case, a Penn State graduate was prevented from entering into an accelerated nursing program because he had a conviction for Public Drunkenness on his record. He was hoping that he could get the conviction expunged because of his situation. Regrettably, in Pennsylvania a person is not eligible to have a summary conviction expunged unless he has remained free of arrest and prosecution for 5 years following the conviction. For more information about Pennsylvania expungements, click here.

The Philadelphia law is a step in the right direction. I admit that I am not sure of my actual position or stance on the complete legalization of marijuana, but I do believe that it should be treated more in accordance with alcohol-related offenses. A person that drinks underage or is charged with Public Drunkenness is issued a summary citation, but a person smoking a joint in a Penn State dorm room faces a misdemeanor charge. At a minimum, the Penn State officers should have discretion to file something other than a misdemeanor possession charge.