- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

DOVER, Del. (AP) - A bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana has cleared a Delaware legislative panel and is headed to the House floor for a vote.

House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee members voted 5-to-4 Wednesday to release the bill after Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat, said she would make several revisions to her bill to address concerns of police officials.

Law enforcement groups nevertheless remain opposed to the bill.

“The drug dealers are saying ‘Bring it on, pass the bill,’ because they’re getting ready to cash in on this deal,” said Sgt. Lance Skinner of the Delaware State Police.

The bill makes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100, rather than a criminal offense.

Smoking marijuana in an area accessible to the public or in a moving vehicle would be a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200 and imprisonment of up to five days.

Supporters of the bill say it is an attempt to prevent otherwise law-abiding pot smokers from ending up with criminal records that could jeopardize their futures, including chances for employment. They also argue that minorities are disproportionately affected by current drug laws.

“The war on drugs has had a devastating effect on certain communities,” said Rep. James Johnson, a black lawmaker from Wilmington who said the legislation was “long overdue.”

In an attempt to allay the concerns of police, Keeley agreed to tighten several provisions in the bill, including adding language clarifying that a person could not drive while smoking and would have to forfeit the marijuana as part of the civil violation.

“They don’t get to walk home with what they have,” she said.

Amid concerns from other bill supporters that she was being too accommodating to law enforcement officials, Keeley also is adding language that expands the prohibition against marijuana use in public to include areas “accessible to the public.” Those areas would include any outdoor area, even on private property, that is within 10 feet of a sidewalk, street, parking lot, park, store, restaurant or other area to which the general public is invited.

“We will not see people walking down the street smoking a marijuana cigarette. That’s not the intent of the bill,” she said.

Keeley also agreed to insert language asserting that the bill could not be construed to modify any law or procedure regarding search and seizure.

Law enforcement officials are worried that the bill would restrict their ability to conduct searches of cars when small quantities of marijuana are seen in plain view during a vehicle stop.

In a letter issued Wednesday, Attorney General Matt Denn said the legislation likely would affect the ability of police to conduct vehicle searches incident to arrests or when a vehicle has been seized following an arrest.

“It is unlikely that either of these types of searches would be permissible if the driver has committed an offense classified as a civil violation,” he wrote.

Denn noted, however, that police would still be entitled to search vehicles if the totality of the facts establishes probable cause to believe that illegal quantities of contraband might be found elsewhere in the vehicle.

“The presence of a ‘personal use’ quantity of marijuana could form part of the basis for the establishment of such probable cause, though it would have to be combined with other facts,” he wrote.

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