MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — As coronavirus pandemic-related court shutdowns continue to delay trials, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather is taking drastic action in an effort to prosecute more homicides and violent crimes.
His office is no longer prosecuting most marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine possession cases, including some involving suspected drug dealers and not just misdemeanors; felonies too.
Merriweather said he modeled the change after other cities, including similarly sized Santa Clara.
"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," Merriweather said. "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."
"It's very surprising"
The idea of drug decriminalization, especially to this degree, remains controversial.
"It's very surprising to hear that the DA does not want to follow the statute and doesn't want to uphold the laws," US Bonding Company owner Jason Cunningham said. "I can't say that anybody in the city should feel safe with them not prosecuting them."
Cunningham has remained a critic of criminal justice reform in recent years and once again, is left shaking his head by decisions in Mecklenburg County.
"My biggest problem is, I think we've had a very violent year," he said. "This is someone that is out here putting all the drugs back into the community that you don't want to prosecute on."
Most low-level drugs cases will be dismissed
Merriweather's policy change means suspected low-level dealers now won't face prosecution unless police actually see them selling and find a large amount of drugs. For those caught with just enough drugs for themselves, prosecutors won't pursue cases unless guns are involved, there's a connection to violence or police have arrested the same person multiple times within a year for similar crimes.
"What we're talking about are sort of these one-off individual cases," he said.
Rather than bring those people to trial, prosecutors will refer them to voluntary treatment programs.
According to Merriweather, the reprioritization will free up his prosecutors and the court calendar to try more violent crime cases he says the pandemic has delayed.
"People want homicides tried in Mecklenburg County, people want to make sure that violent crime offenders are held accountable in a court of law in Mecklenburg County and we need to make sure we're doing that," he said. "All of the decisions that we have to make with the few resources that we have are extremely serious and we have had to be thoughtful and there will be certainly some adjustments, but what we have experienced through this pandemic is not a one-year problem, it's not a two-year problem, it's a five- and 10-year problem and so we've got to figure out different strategies at serving the people of this county."
"It's a morally responsible thing to do"
ACLU Smart Justice Campaign Manager Kristie Puckett Williams calls Merriweather "a trailblazer."
"This is the evolution where the criminal legal system needs to move towards," she said. "We're moving towards the right way to treat the problem. This is not just a fiscally responsible thing to do, it's a morally responsible thing to do."
Puckett Williams knows what it's like to sit in jail on drug charges, waiting for her day in court, while battling addiction.
"I was given an opportunity at recovery and will celebrate 12 years in May," she said. "You don't get to almost 12 years clean from a crack-cocaine addiction by being locked up. That doesn't happen by being locked up. That happens by getting what you need."
For her, the new policy is a full circle moment. After her arrest in Mecklenburg County, a police officer advocated that she receive treatment rather than incarceration and Merriweather, then an assistant district attorney, handled her case.
"I was in treatment for 10 months and came out on the other side," she said.
"Is this fair to them? "Hell no!"
While the advocate applauds the actions of prosecutors, she condemns the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's reaction to his policy change. Merriweather told CMPD about the change in November.
Records show since Dec.1, CMPD officers have made more than 30 arrests for possession of hard drugs or intent to sell them. Those people all spent time in jail even though prosecutors will dismiss most of their cases.
"Is this fair to them?" we asked Puckett Williams, who protested CMPD in 2020.
"Hell no!" she replied. "It's not fair, number one just off the surface level of being arrested for a mental health condition. That's number one, but number two, when you know good and well that it's going to be dismissed eventually, that it's never going to be prosecuted, but yet your life is still tied up in this carceral system, because until it gets dismissed, you have to go to court, you have to miss work, if you're able to bond out. If you're not, then you sit there until those court dates happen."
Not only does she question the fairness of continuing to arrest people, she also questions the department's use of resources, especially as violence in the city continues.
"It takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of manpower and it actually takes away from the things in the community that are happening that they could be focusing on," she said. "The fact that the district attorney is saying, 'We are not going to prosecute folks for these things' and the police say, 'Oh well, we're going to do it anyway,' shows that they are not here to protect and serve and to do the will of the people."
"We do not have anyone available for an interview."
CMPD declined WCNC Charlotte's request for an interview, but conceded, instead of arresting people, officers have the discretion to confiscate their drugs, write a report and move on. Instead, for now, the agency is maintaining its status quo.
"We have been in ongoing discussions with the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office and recognize their need to maximize prosecution resources during the pandemic," CMPD spokesperson Rob Tufano said in an email. "We have been assured that the District Attorney will continue to prioritize drug cases that are associated with violence in addition to cases involving drug sales and trafficking. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has not changed our enforcement strategy as we continue to identify alternative solutions to arrests in drug possession cases. CMPD officers continue to have the discretion to arrest as they perform their duty."
In the meantime, those arrested for minor drug charges remain caught between competing policies.
"This is a prosecution strategy," Merriweather said. "We know that law enforcement officers still have a responsibility to go out and police the streets."
"Would you prefer that these arrests stop?" we asked.
"I have to leave to law enforcement what they do on the street and what strategies they decide to employ," Merriweather replied.
CMPD emails show administrative communication failure
Recent emails between Merriweather's office and CMPD show some officers never got the memo.
"My understanding from Spencer was that CMPD was notified of this change in mid November 2020 and was supposed to get the word out to rank and file quickly," a prosecutor in charge of the drug cases wrote to CMPD on January 19. "Apparently, that has not happened."
According to CMPD records, officers have arrested more than 30 people on charges of possession and sale of cocaine and opium since December 1, 2020.
CMPD emails officers Tuesday
Late Tuesday afternoon, in response to our reporting, CMPD emailed officers, detailing Merriweather's new policy and telling them they "have discretion to police and should continue to police in a way that builds confidence and safety in our community, equipped with the knowledge that certain cases will likely not be prosecuted."
The email also reminds officers, instead of making arrests, they can seize drugs and divert people to a treatment center on the spot, something the agency is hoping to track.