Springfield hit With Lawsuit Over Handling of Pot Petition

Jul 25, 2013

Groups proposing limited penalties for marijuana possession have filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Springfield, City Council, and City Manager for its handling of an ordinance. KSMU’s Scott Harvey explains.

Plaintiffs include Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, The American Victory Coalition, and Maranda Reynolds; who last year helped organize the local petition effort to remove criminal penalties for first- or second-time offenders caught with up to 35 grams of marijuana, and instead fine or order them to community service and/or drug education programs.

The petition was certified by the city clerk, and City Council passed the ordinance on August 27. But the bill was then repealed at their September 24 meeting.

“You can’t do indirectly what you’re prohibited from doing directly.”

Joseph “Chip” Sheppard is the attorney for the plaintiffs. He says that under City Charter Sec. 14.6, the city had two options.

“And those were number one; put it on the ballot, or number two; approve it, vote it in as a new ordinance. And instead they voted it in and repealed it, with the intention the entire time, at least some of them, with the intention of voting on it, and repealing it when they voted it in,” Sheppard said.

See the official complaint issued Tuesday by Sheppard.

Sheppard is referring to discussions ahead of the initial vote to approve the ordinance, when Mayor Bob Stephens, among others, expressed interest in approving the ordinance and then amending or repealing it in the near future. Springfield City Attorney Dan Wichmer says it was no secret that City Council was concerned with some parts of the bill, including provisions allowing for past convictions to be expunged and mandating creation of a citizen oversight panel.

“And then some of the language we thought was problematic in terms of it didn’t allow referrals to the federal or state authorities for different crimes if marijuana was involved. And at that point, council just thought it was a bad bill altogether and voted it out,” Wichmer said.

He feels that the charter section in question is, at best, silent in what council can do in the event a bill is passed.

“How do you treat that ordinance? It’s like any other ordinance. It can be repealed, it can be amended, it can be whatever. We have lots of ordinances that are repealed and are amended. So to say that council can’t do that I disagree, they’re allowed to repeal or amend any ordinance they choose.”

The lawsuit alleges that council violated the constitutional rights of petition supporters. It also claims that the actions of the defendants are unique with respect to valid petitions in the past, noting the quick repeal of the ordinance and “refusal to call an election… on the grounds that the election cost too much money and/or the initiative would fail.”

The plaintiffs seek attorney fees, court costs and compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages from the city, plus the five council members whom voted for the ordinance only to repeal it later.