SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A judge yesterday threw out a lawsuit the City Council had filed against the sponsor of a citizen initiative that made busting adults for marijuana crimes the lowest priority for police.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle dismissed the lawsuit against Heather Poet, who sponsored the initiative passed last November.
"It was terrifying to be sued by my own government, and for a fleeting moment it made me feel maybe I shouldn't have gotten involved in the democratic process," Poet said in a statement.
"But this decision proves we do have a voice and we should never be afraid to use it," she said.
Measure P said that investigating, citing, arresting and prosecuting people for adult marijuana offenses — except for using pot in public or while driving — was the "lowest law enforcement priority" in the city.
The city argued that the measure was invalid and would prohibit enforcement of state and federal drug laws.
The judge disagreed, calling Measure P "a proper legislative enactment."
"Police officers can still arrest those who violate drug possession laws in their presence. The voters have simply instructed them that they have higher priority work to do," the judge wrote in City of Santa Barbara v. Poet.
The court also struck down the city's lawsuit on grounds that Poet was being sued for exercising her constitutionally protected right of free speech as an initiative sponsor. The judge found that the city violated California's anti-SLAPP law, which bars "strategic lawsuits against public participation."
It is the "duty of courts to jealously guard the people's right of initiative and referendum," the ruling said, citing language from a 1984 California Supreme Court ruling, American Labor Federation v. Eu.
Anderle said there was nothing in the law prohibiting enforcement of state law and added that the city "is free to decline to enforce federal criminal statutes."
Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project, which represented Poet, said the ruling was a major victory for the democratic process and a resounding affirmation of voters' rights to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement.
City Attorney Stephen Wiley said the city had instituted the measures contained in the ordinance and only sued to clarify its legality.
"We still think there's a chance this is pre-empted by state and federal law but ... the judge didn't see it that way," Wiley said.
The City Council will decide whether to appeal the decision, he said.
"It's not unusual for initiative measures, particularly local initiatives" to go to a court, Wiley added. "There's a lot of cases out there."