While it's not exactly surprising to hear of a police official coming down hard on a pot user, it is a bit more unusual to hear of a cop threatening to come after someone just for making a pro-legalization comment over Facebook. But that's exactly what happened in South Carolina earlier this week, when the department's police chief warned a resident that he'd "work on finding" him after the Facebook user made a two-line remark about weed legalization. He's since "apologized", but, uh, first amendment rights, anyone?
On Thursday, the South Carolina interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, chose to use the Columbia Police Departments Facebook page to announce that several police officers had seized roughly $40,000 in marijuana from a local apartment during a drug bust, prompting a wave of comments — some of which happened to point out that the department's resources could be otherwise distributed.
One poster in particular, Brian Whitmer, wrote: “Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that’s not bothering anyone. It’ll be legal here one day anyway.” To which the department — later to be identified as the interim police chief himself — responded: “We have arrested all the violent offenders in Five (P)oints. Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.”
That's right. Reasonable suspicion.
The comment was, of course, immediately deleted — ostensibly by accident — after which the police chief posted an explanatory comment (which, frankly, didn't help): ”I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it’s reasonable to believe that you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity. Why would someone feel threaten [sic] if you are not doing anything wrong?"
Uhh...you mean, other than by, um, threats?
"Apply this same concept to gang activity or gang members," Santiago continued. "You can have gang tattoos and advocate that life style [sic], but that only makes me suspicious of them, I can't do anything until they commit a crime. So feel free to express yourself, and I will continue to express myself and what we stand for."
Just a little statistic here: A whopping fifty-eight percent of Americans now support marijuana legalization , a higher number even than those who are for gay marriage. That's a lot of suspects. And it's not like the state doesn't already have a profiling problem — surveys have shown that minority drivers are over twice as likely as white drivers to be subjected to searches, even though they're significantly more likely to find contraband in the cars of white drivers.
On Friday, both the department's spokesperson and the chief himself were quick to smooth the waters. “Chief was trying to say that he puts would-be-criminals on notice — if you commit a crime or plan to commit one, CPD will work hard to investigate and press charges according to the law,” the department spokeswoman said. “It’s easy for social media posts to be misunderstood.”
Santiago also said he'd learned a hard lesson about social media, but when asked by Free Times whether he still believed that pro-legalization was a reason to suspect criminal activity, the chief had this to say:
“It’s the totality of circumstances. I can give you some idea of real cases: Somebody might wear beads with a marijuana leaf on it, or a shirt with a marijuana leaf, or have marijuana tattoos. … In the state of South Carolina, marijuana’s illegal. But that doesn’t give me the right to detail you or stop you with just that one factor ...What we train officers to do is when you see something suspicious, go up and talk to them.”
In short, don't wear any Weeds or Breaking Bad t-shirts in South Carolina, folks.