Southside marijuana charges uneven
Last year, citing a disparity in law enforcement practice giving her headaches, Southside District Magistrate Nancy Matos Gonzalez wrote an open letter to city officials and city and Lehigh University police departments.
In it, she described a disparity in charges filed by officers regarding arrests for possession of a small amount of marijuana. She asserts Lehigh police consistently use the recent city ordinance declaring small amount arrests minor infractions, and thus worthy of a simple citation, while city police continue to submit harsher and more costly criminal charges. She said it’s making it difficult to rule evenly when Lehigh students are receiving a slap on the wrist while Southside residents are caught in an expensive legal process.
Matos Gonzalez said it is not her position to comment on police policy, but asked that the administration and departments sort it out in the name of fairness. She was promised meetings would be forthcoming.
As of two weeks ago, she said in a phone call, “That has not happened.”
A call Friday to District Magistrate Nick Englesson, who oversees some Southside territory, revealed a shared opinion. He said he agrees with her about remaining apart from enforcement policy, but that he thinks he understands where she’s coming from.
“It’s a general principle of law that if you treat one class of people differently from another, you get an equal protection rights issue. It’s a civil rights violation and the city is not taking it seriously.”
What’s more, Englesson said he has good relationships with many city police officers and he’s been told they have not received clear guidelines on this policy, though anecdotal evidence suggests they are discouraged from applying the ordinance.
Englesson said he had his staff run some numbers and that in 17 months and more than 100 small amount cases filed by Bethlehem officers, not one was filed under the ordnance before Matos Gonzales’ letter was made public late last year.
He outlined what he felt would be acceptable guidelines, but reiterated that setting policy is on the departments themselves.
City administrators, council members, police chief and Lehigh police did not respond to inquiries on this issue.