Baraboo leaders rejected Tuesday a proposal to expand the city’s ordinance governing possession of drug paraphernalia.
The police chief and city attorney introduced the change to provide an additional option in handling drug cases. But citizens and aldermen regarded the change as an overreach, and said its wording could subject the city to lawsuits. The measure failed by a 3-6 vote.
“I just don’t see what we gain from this other than a lot of exposure for the city,” said Alderman Scott Sloan.
The proposed change to city code would’ve broadened its definition of drug paraphernalia, making the ordinance more restrictive than state law. It would’ve made it unlawful to carry items associated with drug use, ranging from syringes and pot pipes to plastic bags and spoons – unless the holder has a legal reason to do so.
Violators would’ve been subject to civil – not criminal – convictions. Under current law, someone found in possession of a pot pipe only can be prosecuted if residue from the drug is present. Under the proposed change, no evidence of use would’ve been required. Officers would’ve been allowed to consider other factors – such as the suspect’s criminal history and complaints from neighbors about suspected drug dealing – when conducting an investigation.
“It gives us an enforcement tool,” Schauf told the council.
The measure came to the full council on a 3-0 recommendation from its administrative committee last week.
Speakers sound off
Before the council took up the matter, citizen speakers criticized the proposed change. Some spoke against criminalizing the possession of common household items. Others said the expanded ordinance would give officers too much latitude.
Eugene Robkin, an Ash Street resident who formerly served on the council, said the change may have been well-intended, but could have disastrous results. These could include a protracted legal challenge. “This is a bad idea,” he said, producing a barbecue tool that could be used to inject drugs. “This will do you no good in terms of actual enforcement. You’re not solving anything.”
Others said the change is out of step with national trends. While other states are legalizing marijuana, the city was considering cracking down on pipe possession. Tammy Wood of Wood Pipes Smoke Shoppe in Reedsburg said the change would be bad for business. “This would criminalize their means of employment,” she said of artisans who make pipes. “If my store was in your town, I’d have to close my doors.”
Speakers also said that at a time when mistrust is sparking violence between police and citizens around the country, creating more potential misunderstandings could prove tragic. “You don’t want to go down that path,” Robkin said.
Wood said such an ordinance would make citizens guilty until proven innocent. “This takes away the onus on the officer to prove guilt,” she said.
“I think it puts an awful lot of discretion in the hands of the officer,” Alderman Tom Kolb agreed. “As society is moving more toward a treatment modality, this seems to be geared in the opposite direction.”
Multiple speakers, including Mark Kelderman of Brownsville, said the ordinance could get the city sued. “The language of the ordinance itself is so sophomoric as to invite litigation,” he said.
Defending the change
City Attorney Alene Bolin said the wording of the ordinance change was based on similar regulations in other communities, ones that have passed constitutional muster. Officers still would have to prove that a suspicious item was intended for use with drugs.
Schauf said the change would provide an alternative means of enforcement, other than criminal prosecution. He said law-abiding citizens wouldn’t be prosecuted for carrying resealable plastic bags or balloons. “Everyone has spoons in their house,” Schauf said. “We’re not going to arrest you.”
Aldermen in opposition
Several aldermen objected to the change. Mike Plautz said his son, a long-haired pipe collector, wouldn’t be able to walk around town freely. “It opens it up so the police could stop someone on the street in that situation,” Plautz said.
Alderman Joel Petty said officers shouldn’t be allowed to create probable cause that otherwise wouldn’t exist. “Accusation is a very powerful thing,” he said.