During a traffic stop on Freedom Drive in late 2014, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer found $10 worth of marijuana in Morchello Pearce’s car.
Under North Carolina law, the officer had a choice: Give Pearce a citation for possession of less than a half ounce of marijuana or arrest him. The officer arrested Pearce, who is black.
“It was just a little bud,” said Pearce, who works as a chef at an uptown restaurant and bar. “I know the law, and I told him, ‘You could write me a ticket.’ I think he felt like (making an arrest) because I was on the wrong side of town.”
An Observer review of CMPD arrest records shows that over the past two years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested blacks found with less than a half-ounce of marijuana at about three times the rate of whites, or 28 percent of the time compared to 10 percent. The Observer reviewed cases in which the sole charge was simple possession of marijuana.
CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano said the department’s officers are not singling out African-Americans. The higher arrest rate for blacks is the result of patrolling high-crime areas, he said.
“While on the surface there is a disproportionate number of African-Americans arrested for simple marijuana possession, the geographical area of enforcement is a critical element of the equation and cannot be overlooked,” Tufano said.
However, the department did not explain why blacks are arrested more often than whites rather than handed a citation.
CMPD doesn’t have a policy to guide officers on who should be arrested or who should receive only a citation in such cases. Tufano said officers have “the discretion to either issue a citation or make an arrest for simple marijuana possession.”
If you have a joint, I don’t see how that is an endangerment to anyone. With all that’s happening with crime in Charlotte, that’s the last problem the police need to worry about.
Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney declined multiple requests over the past two months to be interviewed for this story. He instead issued a written statement to the Observer, saying the department “routinely analyzes data to determine whether there is any disparate impact from law enforcement efforts. It is important to note though, that disproportionality does not always equate to discrimination.”
On Friday, Putney defended the department’s pattern of arrests in an interview with WCNC-TV. CMPD provided the station with data that showed more blacks are arrested than whites for simple marijuana possession.
Possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor in North Carolina. The maximum penalty is a $200 fine, and both citations and arrests require a mandatory court date.
But an arrest turns up more easily on Internet searches, hurting someone’s chances of landing jobs, enrolling in college or renting an apartment. It also means getting fingerprinted, having a mugshot taken and possibly needing to post bond.
“A lot of people think of marijuana arrests as a slap on the wrist,” said Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national group that seeks to reform drug laws. “What a marijuana arrest does is it damages someone’s life chances. The system discriminates against blacks at every point.”
In the past two years, CMPD arrested 762 African-Americans for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana. During the same time period, they arrested 64 whites.
In Pearce’s case, the officer brought him to Mecklenburg County jail before midnight, where he waited for four hours before being released.
“It was all such a waste of time,” he said. “I had to sit there in jail for four hours. What was all this for?”
Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, said she’s heard complaints from African-American residents about marijuana arrests.
“If you have a joint, I don’t see how that is an endangerment to anyone,” Mack said. “With all that’s happening with crime in Charlotte, that’s the last problem the police need to worry about.”
Mack said she believes police feel pressure to make arrests in high-crime areas.
“The primary goal is to find someone to arrest that night,” she said.
In the last decade, the nation’s attitudes toward marijuana have shifted significantly toward leniency.
CMPD has followed that trend somewhat, and is writing more citations for marijuana possession and making fewer arrests. Arrests have declined in each of the last five years, a change that has impacted all races, including African-Americans.
In his statement, Putney said marijuana arrests have declined by 35 percent over three years.
The geographical area of enforcement is a critical element of the equation and cannot be overlooked.
CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano
While blacks are charged more often and arrested more often than whites for marijuana possession, national data show marijuana use is similar for both races.
The federal government’s National Household Survey on Drug Use in 2010 found about 14 percent of blacks said they had used marijuana in the past year. About 12 percent of whites said they had used the drug.
In Charlotte, about one-third of the city is black and one half is white, non-Hispanic.
Yet, in the past two years, blacks comprised 74 percent of those arrested or cited with possessing marijuana in Charlotte. Non-Hispanic whites were 18 percent of people arrested or cited.
Over the same period, CMPD arrested 762 African-Americans for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana. They arrested 64 whites.
Why the difference?
A review of arrest reports suggests officers sometimes make an arrest when they suspect drug dealing, even if they only find less than a half-ounce of marijuana. Arrest reports sometimes mention a suspect has a scale, baggies and cash.
Peter Moskos, an assistant professor at the department of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said several factors can cause an officer to make an arrest rather than write a citation.
“The real issue is what were they doing that led to the ticket or citation,” said Moskos, a former police officer. “If I have a known drug corner and I stop you and frisk you and I find weed on you, you are a drug dealer. You may have your stash somewhere else.”
He added that in an age of data-driven policing, there is pressure to do something – anything – when violent crime or property crime spike.
“There is some demand to do something in a high-crime neighborhood,” he said.
The ACLU, in a 2013 study of marijuana arrests nationwide, said software that tracks and analyzes arrests, crimes and complaints can encourage more arrests than necessary. CMPD uses such software.
Moskos said a key factor in whether an officer makes an arrest or writes a ticket is the suspect’s behavior.
“Is the guy polite?” Moskos asked.
Ezekiel Edwards of the American Civil Liberties Union said police motivations for arresting people for small amounts of marijuana range from creating an appearance of getting tough on crime to gaining intelligence. But he said arrests can also stem from bias.
“It can be about race, and not much more than that,” Edwards said.
The real issue is what were they doing that led to the ticket or citation.
Peter Moskos, an assistant professor at the department of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York
In some cases, CMPD incident reports list no factors other than the presence of marijuana in making an arrest.
▪ A black woman in a predominantly white neighborhood near South Mecklenburg High was arrested after she and another person were in a car. Someone had called police about an “occupied suspicious vehicle,” and police found a “used cigar blunt with marijuana inside.”
▪ A black woman in the Smallwood neighborhood off of Rozelles Ferry Road was arrested in July 2014 after police found her with a glass pipe and marijuana. The incident report doesn’t mention a citizen complaint or any other reason why police found the drug.
▪ That same month a black man was arrested after a routine traffic stop on W.T. Harris Boulevard in which the officer found $40 of marijuana – less than an eighth of an ounce – in the suspect’s car.
▪ A month later, a black woman was arrested near a shopping center on Nations Ford Road after police found her with a “marijuana blunt” and a purple pipe with marijuana residue inside.
Robert Reeves, a Charlotte defense attorney who handles marijuana cases, said he doesn’t think CMPD is actively seeking out people for possession. He said he doesn’t know why there is a disparity in terms of blacks and whites being arrested.
Tufano said the department “focuses our drug enforcement strategy in the geographical areas where it’s reported by community members.”
The City Council last year passed a resolution that prohibited the police from engaging in racial profiling. CMPD suggested the ordinance, and police officials have said the department doesn’t profile anyone on race, ethnicity or religion. The resolution calls for the department to monitor its own data to look for problems.
“The civil rights resolution is supposed to give us data,” said Mack of the NAACP. “We need to monitor that data.”
Staff researcher Maria David and staff writer Gavin Off contributed.