INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — State lawmakers appear to be fighting back against the Marion County prosecutor, who last year announced he would no longer be prosecuting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
A bill that passed out of committee Tuesday would give the Indiana attorney general the power to prosecute crimes even if the county prosecutor refuses to do so.
Attorney General Curtis Hill, a Republican, said he’s neutral about the entire thing. He told News 8 state lawmakers who are pursuing the legislation, led by Sen. Michael Young, a Republican from Indianapolis who authored the bill.
But Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, a Democrat, said he knows exactly who and what they are pursuing.
“We certainly feel like this is all about possession of marijuana,” he said Tuesday.
Mears announced the prosecution policy change in September: If possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is the most serious charge against someone, that person will not be prosecuted by his office.
He said these cases disproportionately affect people of color, which violates the Constitution.
“There’s still a number of other cases that we have filed,” said Mears, mentioning cases involving charges of operating while intoxicated, public consumption and dealing marijuana.
Hill believes Mears’ announcement will have far-reaching consequences.
“That’s a problem because that’s a welcome mat to lawlessness and disregard of the rule of law,” he said.
It’s the public nature of announcement that bothers Hill the most.
He said prosecutors already have great discretion in what to pursue and how to pursue it, even moving to dismiss charges.
Hill said his position about Senate Bill 436 is “neutral.”
Declining to prosecute is an issue that has popped up in other places including San Francisco, where prosecutors ignore public urination and prostitution because they believe it’s criminalizes homelessness.
While Hill admits Marion County is the only place in Indiana right now that falls under the wording of the proposed statute by refusing to prosecute certain crimes as a matter of policy, he said this bill shouldn’t be connected to a particular crime.
“I am concerned, just as members of the General Assembly are, about a misuse of prosecutorial discretion. But I’m hopeful that there can be discussion made with the prosecutors who may feel differently,” Hill said. “I think we should be cautious about interfering with the discretion of the prosecutor. One thing that we can consider is that if the community is what a prosecutor elects to not enforce the law, if they see it differently, they have their shot every four years.”
Mears said state lawmakers have their shot, too. He said they should take up the marijuana issue in open discussions as neighboring states have and vote on whether it should be allowed for medical reasons or decriminalized in other ways.
But Mears said if it does pass, he expects a court challenge.
“The biggest issue is that it raises a number of separation of powers issues that make the enforcement of this bill highly unlikely,” he said.
One part of this bill is that even though the state would oversee prosecution, the county would still have to pay for it.
News 8 reached out to bill author Young, but he was in committee meetings until late Tuesday night and unable to do an interview.