Late last year, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced that his office would stop prosecuting most simple drug possession cases – even felonies. He made the announcement in response to pandemic-related court shutdowns and delayed trials, along with an upsurge in arrests for violent crimes.
“With 100 homicides a year, I do not have time to carry those (drug) cases for two-and-a-half years and I think most people would agree on that,” the district attorney told reporters. “If I’m able to get a homicide trial or a violent crime trial in the court a month faster, a year faster, I think that does so much to increase the level of accountability and increase people’s confidence in our justice system and increase safety on the streets and neighborhoods of Mecklenburg County.”
Prosecutorial discretion isn’t new, but this drug policy is controversial
Merriweather said that the decision to focus limited prosecution resources on more serious offenses – and thus decriminalize drugs, to a degree – was modeled after other cities. However, it remains controversial.
A bail bondsman interviewed by WCNC feared that allowing drug users to escape prosecution will only make Mecklenburg County more dangerous. He accused the DA of refusing to uphold the laws of the state.
The decision also seems to be controversial with the local police. According to WCNC, Merriweather told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department about the new policy in November. Yet, in the first couple of months of the new enforcement priority, the CMPD arrested more than 30 people for nonviolent drug possession – even though prosecutors will dismiss those cases.
Under the new policy, officers still have the discretion to make arrests. However, they also have the discretion to seize any drugs and divert the person into treatment.
In January, a spokesperson for the CMPD said that the department had not changed its enforcement strategy in response to the new policy.
When people are arrested for low-level drug possession, it can be devastating, even though the DA won’t prosecute. They still get booked into jail and have to stay unless they can make bail. This can mean losing jobs, housing and other rights even though the case will ultimately be dismissed.
What crimes won’t be prosecuted going forward?
The prosecution policy change indicates that people will not be prosecuted for low-level possession and dealing that does not involve violence or guns. Prosecutors will continue prosecuting:
- People who are actually caught dealing a large amount of drugs
- When a gun is involved
- When there is a connection to violence
- When the person has been arrested for similar offenses multiple times within a year
“What we’re talking about are sort of these one-off individual cases,” said Merriweather.
Instead of prosecuting such crimes, the DA’s office will refer people into voluntary drug treatment programs. Any charges initiated by the police will be dropped.
If you have been arrested for a drug offense, it may not be obvious whether the Mecklenburg County DA’s office plans to prosecute you. Talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney to find out what to expect.