Bethlehem Press

Saturday, January 18, 2020

District judge letter says city, Lehigh police marijuana actions uneven

Monday, January 6, 2020 by Nate Jastrzemski njastrzemski@tnonline.com in Local News

In a letter to Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio which has since gone public, Southside District Judge Nancy Matos-Gozalez last month criticized irreconcilable differences between city and Lehigh University law enforcement’s handling of marijuana possession cases.

Both departments operate on the Southside, but Matos-Gonzalez notes a disparity in charges by city officers are often more severe, so much so that she feels it has, “brought forth a situation which constricts my ability to dispense equitable justice.”

Matos-Gonzalez explained it’s not her role to critique departmental procedures, but that she feels she must speak out to systemic matters that affect her rulings.

She said LUPD generally follows the local ordinance in small amount possession cases, which last year was decriminalized, and amounts to a fine and cost of $116.25 for a first offense and fine and cost of $241.25 for up to a fourth offense.

Bethlehem officers, who have “discretion to use ordinance, state law or both” are more than three times more likely to file criminal charges for small mount possession, and more than seven times more likely to file criminal charges for small mount possession when there is also a possession of paraphernalia charge.

In the criminal charge incidents in which the defendant pleads guilty, Matos-Gonzalez said, the fines and charges can exceed $1,000 and may include up to 30 days of incarceration. To balance the scales, she’s attempted to lower some expenses for those filed criminally by setting the fine at $1, though the filing fees are still around $575.

Defendants who seek options other than pleading guilty will find other steep costs and possibly probationary supervision.

Matos-Gonzalez said she understands Bethlehem’s unique position as it lies in two counties, Northampton and Lehigh, the latter of which District Attorney Jim Martin does not support lesser charges for marijuana possession, but she asked that her request at least prompt a closer look at the disparity and Bethlehem’s “officer discretion” policy.

She said, “My motive is purely to strive for an equal playing field for all who appear before this District Court. Right now, that does not currently exist and the result is polarizing.”

DiLuzio did not respond to inquiries.