NJ cops still making arrests despite freeze on marijuana prosecutions
With the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey on the horizon, the state attorney general has written a letter asking all municipal prosecutors in the Garden State postpone any low-level marijuana cases until at least September 4.
But this does not mean that cops will stop writing tickets or making arrests. The request also does not apply to county-level prosecutors who deal with more serious misdemeanor and felony offenses involving marijuana and other drugs.
In fact, some municipal prosecutors on Tuesday refused to adjourn their marijuana cases.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced Tuesday he is convening a “working group of criminal justice stakeholders” to study the issue of marijuana prosecutions so he may develop appropriate guidance for prosecutors on how they should deal with these cases.
There is broad speculation New Jersey lawmakers will soon pass legislation that will legalize recreational pot for adults, and Gov. Phil Murphy has indicated he is eager to sign such a bill into law.
Grewal's request came days after the prosecutor in Jersey City seemed to jump the gun and announce that the city's court would no longer prosecute such low-level cases, which effectively would make the state's second-largest city the first to decriminalize marijuana.
Grewal, however, scolded the city and told officials there that they had no authority to decriminalize an illicit substance.
According to a spokesperson for Attorney General Grewal, he “believes that the best way to develop progressive solutions is through a collaborative approach that involves multiple stakeholders across law enforcement, civil rights organizations, and community leaders.”
Defense attorney Bob Bianchi, the former Morris County prosecutor, said there is significant prosecutorial discretion in New Jersey and the AG appears to be saying to prosecutors: “Hold off on these cases until we can explain to you where your discretion comes in and doesn’t come in.”
He pointed out that prosecutors "can’t just turn a blind eye to a law."
But Grewal appears to be telling municipal prosecutors: “Look, until we get our arms around what is an appropriate use of the prosecutor’s discretion, you can hold off so that we don’t have a disparate or unequal enforcement.”
Bianchi pointed out that “you can be in one county and be charged and prosecuted very heavily for an offense, whereas you can cross a county line into another one and virtually nothing happens to you. There’s a lot of disparate treatment.”
He pointed out the letter is directed to prosecutors, not police departments.
“Don’t go out in the street and smoke up a joint and think everything is going to be okie-dokie," he advised.
Defense attorney Rich Lomurro, a trustee for the New Jersey Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says he’s heard some municipal courts in Morris and Hunterdon counties were moving ahead with marijuana prosecutions on Tuesday, even after the attorney general’s recommendation was received.
“The attorney general has made the suggestion but the municipal courts didn’t feel they were compelled to follow it as of yet," he said. “I do understand that may be addressed and they may be getting in line with the attorney general’s suggestion."
He noted there are a lot of municipal courts in New Jersey and it’s not uncommon for there to be discrepancies in how cases are handled.
Later this week, the attorney general is expected to announce the names of those participating in the working group.
Also on New Jersey 101.5:
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com