Not commonly does a single public official, at least those unelected, manage to change a whole legal environment all on their own. But it can happen. A new story out of Seattle last week showed how one police officer managed to do it all on his own.
The instance came to light when the Seattle Police released its regular report, on required by city rules, on marijuana enforcement.
It said, “When reviewing data captured for this report, SPD staff discovered that 66 of 83, or approximately 80%, of marijuana tickets were issued by one officer. In some instances, the officer added notes to the tickets. Some notes requested the attention of City Attorney Peter Holmes and were addressed to 'Petey Holmes.' In another instance, the officer indicated he flipped a coin when contemplating which subject to cite. In another note, the officer refers to Washington’s voter-enacted changes to marijuana laws as 'silly.'”
About half of the tickets went to people who were homeless.
The officer's name was released by the department, after inquiries, and he was taken off the beat and reassigned.
This was an officer who didn't get the city's unofficial memo about marijuana enforcement. The city's voters have passed a measure ordering that pot enforcement be, in effect, the lowest priority for police. The message has been in essence – well in advance of the statewide legalization vote – that unless violence or theft or children are involved, or someone complaints about a specific problem, that marijuana is best just left alone.
Still, the officer was following the terms of the law, a law that was on the books locally and remains on the books federally. Until it's off the books entirely, he would have legal authority to unilaterally change the legal climate in his corner of Seattle.
Police and prosecutors have a lot of effective power. They could in theory go after many kinds of offenses; as a matter of practical reality, they pick and choose.
And as long as the law allows, some will choose in ways the community as a whole might not prefer.
That's the case for not just expressing preferences, but for changing the law.