PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales says her office will no longer prosecute possession of marijuana cases in the Portsmouth General District Court.
In a letter Morales sent to the judges earlier this week, she says the policy change is effective immediately and that all cases would be dismissed with the payment of court costs.
Morales tells 10 On Your Side she started having conversations with judges in March, and they are on board with dismissing the charges.
“It’s really important for us to think as a criminal justice system about why we are doing the things we are and the way were are doing them,” Morales told 10 On Your Side’s Jason Marks. “It is really time we think about how we start to decarcerate as opposed to incarcerating for every type of crime. This is one those cases we really don’t have dangerous violent occurrences resulting from possession of marijuana.”
Morales says unlike other jurisdictions, her staff prosecutes misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases. She tells 10 On Your Side it is time consuming and takes time away from cases which are more serious.
“We see marijuana charges come through frequently, however we do have more important things to address when we are talking about violent crimes such as homicides and things of that nature,” Morales added. “We do have prosecutors who have very limited time. We have body cameras to watch and so resources are very important to think about. We have to balance crimes where people may be annoying us or we might not like the conduct versus crimes were people are really a threat and are dangerous and those prosecutions require a serious amount of time and direction”
Morales says she has 17 prosecutors on staff.
10 On Your Side asked Portsmouth interim Police Chief Angela Greene what she is now telling her officers to do in the field.
“The Portsmouth Police Department has and will continue to have an open dialogue with the Portsmouth Commonwealth Attorney, Mrs. Stephanie Morales, as well as the Judicial Officers who serve within the Portsmouth Court System,” Greene said. “My officers will continue to make arrests and enforce the law as they do in all criminal matters. Once a case is brought before the courts for trial, it is up to the members of our judicial system (judges and prosecutors) to determine the appropriate penalties for the criminal offense. As we move forward and current criminal laws change, we will continue to do our due diligence as law enforcement officers to make arrests when applicable and continue working with our existing judicial partners to ensure we are providing increased safety and quality of life for the citizens we serve.”
“I appreciate their courage,” said local defense attorney Eric Korslund. “I think they are taking a bold stance on the issue of marijuana. I think the issue is obvious. I think it is a waste of tax payer money.”
Though Korslund is in favor what Morales is doing he says he’s not sure how the General Assembly will react.
“The Commonwealth’s Attorney is part of the executive branch and they do not make the laws,” Korslund added. “They are elected to enforce the laws and right now marijuana is still illegal.”
“We do have prosecutorial discretion and often times prosecutors need to use that prosecutorial discretion for the right things,” Morales said.
Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood announced in January his office would no longer prosecute simple marijuana possession cases appealed to the Norfolk Circuit Court. Unlike Portsmouth, Norfolk prosecutors only got involved in misdemeanor marijuana cases after convictions in General District Court were appealed to the circuit court.
A Norfolk judge ruled against Underwood’s directive in January, denying a prosecutor’s motion to drop charges against a man charged with possession of marijuana.
10 On Your Side called Virginia Beach to see whether Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle has any plans to follow Norfolk and Portsmouth’s lead.
“The General Assembly makes the laws,” Stolle said. “It is my responsibility as the elected commonwealth’s attorney to prosecute violations of the laws that the General Assembly passes. It is inappropriate for a prosecutor to essentially create their own set of laws in their jurisdictions. The proper place to address this issue is with the legislature.”
Morales says court costs are typically $165. Pro-marijuana legalization organizations such as Virginia NORML applaud what Morales is doing.
“Eight out of ten Virginians favor fines not crimes for simple marijuana possession,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini said. “It’s encouraging to see municipalities taking action in the absence of legislative progress from Richmond. We look forward to these municipalities including decriminalization in their legislative priories and joining us in the General Assembly to lobby for the substantive marijuana policy reforms Virginians demand.”
Watch Jason Marks’ exclusive interview with Morales tonight on WAVY News 10 beginning at 4 p.m.