DALLAS — It’s called “cite and release.”
It’s stamped onto court documents in hundreds of court cases filed in Dallas County.
It works like this.
When Dallas police find people with small amounts of marijuana, they aren’t arrested. They’re cited, or issued a ticket ordering them to appear in court, and they’re released.
Since about 2017, about 350 people have gotten tickets under the program. Many of them ended up in the courtroom of Dallas County Criminal Court Judge Nancy Mulder.
“They are typically young people -- people between the ages of 17 and 22 who are just starting out in their lives,” Mulder said.
She began seeing a pattern.
“When you see people walk into your courtroom and they're all people of color, you start to think there's a problem,” she said.
An analysis of all cite and release cases shows large numbers of cases come from two Dallas police patrol sectors: Southwest and Southeast.
That is also where some of the city’s poorest residents live.
Broken down by race, the numbers are even more startling.
54% of those cited are Black
38% are Hispanic
8% are white
“One thing I know for sure is that people of color are not smoking marijuana more than Caucasian people,” Mulder said. “That brings us to the larger social justice issue of, are we over-policing certain neighborhoods?”
The cite and release program was designed to cut down on the costs of prosecuting low-level cases. It’s also intended to keep people who pose no serious threat to society out of already overcrowded jails.
But cite and release brings up another societal question.
Are police choosing to come into contact with people of color more often than white people?
If you are issued a cite and release citation, it means you are not committing any other crime – only possession of less than four ounces of marijuana.
“The numbers, they don't add up. It should be a greater number across the board for all races,” said Sheldon Smith, president of the Dallas chapter of the National Black Police Association.
Smith is also a longtime Dallas police officer.
“We keep these numbers and percentages to see who is being affected, especially in the cite and release programs,” he said. “These numbers tell us that African Americans are sought out or stopped more than any other race, which means that they're being searched more than any other race, and that's kind of troubling for me.”
Criminologist Stephen Bishopp sees it differently.
“It certainly doesn't tell me that officers are biased,” he said. “It actually tells me the opposite.”
He’s also a Dallas police supervisor with over 30 years of experience working in South Dallas.
“Say [out of] 100 people … that are cited and released, 90 are from minority communities, then that tells me that that's 90 people that could have gone to jail did not,” Bishopp said. “That tells me cite and release is working the way they wanted it to.”
Victor was cited and released in August 2019.
At the time, he was driving in Oak Cliff when an officer pulled him over. The car had a paper tag that didn’t match the vehicle. The officer smelled marijuana, and Victor admitted he did smoke some.
“I was not afraid, but a little on the scared side," said Victor, who asked WFAA to conceal his identity. “He started to reiterate that I had stolen the vehicle, and it was a stolen vehicle. And I try to explain it to him. I said, 'Sir, my dad buys cars. All the time, he fixes them and he sells them.' He says, Well, I don't believe you. I don't believe that you're telling the truth.'”
He was 19 at the time.
“He kept saying I was lying, that the vehicle was stolen, that it smells like weed in the car, that I'm just making up all these scenarios,” Victor said.
The officer handcuffed him while police searched his car. Police found a small amount, less than two ounces of marijuana, in a jar in a backpack.
“He explained the charges that I was getting and why I was getting them and how I was lucky to not have gone to jail that they had just started the cite and release program,” Victor said. “And that I was lucky that I fell under it to not go to jail.”
But cite and release isn’t the same as a traffic ticket.
Victor has had to take time off his job waiting tables to go to court multiple times. He also learned he could lose his driver’s license over the charge.
“I mean, let's be honest, if they were to stop a white guy in the car like that, they're not going to search them,” he said. “They're not going to do all of the extreme measures that they did with me.”
It’s also troubling to Dallas County District Attorney John Cruezot.
“African Americans are stopped for offenses that other people in other communities are not stopped for, traffic offenses, front license plates, turn signals,” he said at an October Dallas City Council public safety committee meeting. "You know yourself that if you go up into North Dallas, sports cars, they don't have front license plates. You don't see them being pulled over."
Dallas police are still issuing tickets under the cite and release program, but Creuzot has said his office won't take first-time marijuana cases any longer.