Proposed resolution would let Atlanta residents pay marijuana fines online

Proposed resolution would let Atlanta residents pay marijuana fines online
Published: Apr. 24, 2023 at 5:43 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Every year, thousands of people are charged with low-level marijuana offenses in the city of Atlanta. But unlike a parking or speeding ticket, you can’t pay the typically $75 fine online – you have to appear before a judge.

With an already backlogged caseload, a resolution being considered by the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee would change that to allow fines to be paid electronically. Some members behind the idea say it could alleviate the burden on courts and on the people facing the fines.

“It’s a time suck, and it’s a time-suck across the board, not just for the people who are paying the fine, but for the court as well,” said District 5 City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari. “So I see this as a win across the board.”

Possession of marijuana under an ounce was decriminalized in the city of Atlanta in 2017, but people charged with possession of less than an ounce still have to appear in court.

Atlanta Municipal and courts across the state are still in the midst of crippling case backlogs; a combination of COVID-related court shutdowns and lack of proper staffing. Council members in favor of the resolution, like Bakhtiari, say this could be a simple fix to get some cases cleared out.

“For something that’s only a $75 fine, that does not need to be on a judge’s docket,” she said. “That should be something that can be paid online.”

Rachel Kaufman, a criminal defense attorney who handles cases of low-level marijuana possession, agreed and says larger court systems should consider a similar policy.

“The criminal dockets are clogged and we have really serious violent crimes not being charged,” Kaufman noted. “I think the goal is to get it out of court, which is what the city of Atlanta is doing, but then we have to ask Fulton County, what are they doing?”

Black residents of Georgia are three times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana compared to white residents. Bakhtiari says that makes this an issue of equity as much as a legal one.

“It also helps individuals that might have to miss work for this, that may have to arrange around childcare that they can’t afford,” she said. “Coming down to the court takes hours, not minutes, so this would help alleviate a lot of things.”

The resolution was set for an introduction on Monday, but was delayed two weeks. Sources tell Atlanta News First that the city’s finance department wanted to pause and take a closer look at the impact the policy would have.