How California law handled drug possession offenses changed dramatically in 2014 when Proposition 47 (commonly known as Prop 47) was passed. It had a profound effect on people charged with drug possession. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is Prop 47?

Prop 47 was a ballot measure approved by California voters in November 2014. It reduced specific low-level, nonviolent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which are lower forms of criminal charges with lesser penalties and consequences. It also offered people already convicted under felonies for these lower-level charges the possibility of having their sentences reduced to misdemeanors as long as they applied to do that by November 4, 2022.

The goal of Prop 47 was to reduce the number of people incarcerated for these lower-level crimes and use the financial savings to benefit preventive initiatives such as drug and mental health treatments and K-12 at-risk student programs, and victim services.

While it sounds like a positive change on the surface, the measure isn’t without detractors. The property crimes portion of the proposition is increasingly under fire as minor theft crimes, such as smash-and-grab or retail theft, have increased, but the penalties for those crimes aren’t considered stringent enough by the victims. Many are making the case that the misdemeanors filed in those cases aren’t a deterrent.

Some call for the property crimes portion of Prop 47 to be repealed, while others would like to see all of Prop 47, including the reduced drug crimes, repealed, pointing to cases where someone addicted to drugs steals in order to sell the stolen items for cash to buy drugs with.

How Did Prop 47 Affect Drug Diversion Programs?

Prior to Prop 47’s enactment, many drug cases went through what is known as drug courts. These would determine if the person charged would face jail time or if they were eligible for a drug diversion program. If the latter were chosen, the person charged would be sent to a drug treatment program, diverting them from incarceration and allowing them to avoid having a felony conviction on their record. The drug treatment programs had a good record of helping people break their addiction and avoid falling back into drugs once released.

It was an option that often seemed better than going to jail. Felony convictions could result in jail sentences lasting multiple years. However, since Prop 47 passed, more people convicted of misdemeanors have been given the choice of a shorter jail sentence or going to treatment. Because many of the shorter jail sentences end up cut even shorter because of crowded jails, that’s become more attractive to the person convicted. Once awarded early release, it’s easy for them to slip back into the drug world.

However, a 2021 study found that redirecting jail costs to preventive programs has had a positive impact. The one-year study found that people in the study group had a lower recidivism rate and a lower rate of arrest for any crime. If Prop 47 is repealed, it’s unclear whether these programs will end.

Are Police Officers Simply Ignoring Some Crimes?

In 2015, the 52,000 fewer arrests included 22,000 fewer drug arrests. California law enforcement officials told the New York Times that many of the state’s drug offenders are now simply cited and released rather than formally arrested, or else they are ignored entirely by California police officers who believe the penalties for minor drug violations are now too insignificant to bother with the work of arresting, booking, and formally charging a suspect. However, most police officers still make arrests for drug crimes, and those charged with a drug violation in southern California will still need the advice and services of an Orange County criminal defense attorney.

Donny Youngblood, who is the sheriff of Kern County and also the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, agreed that some officers may no longer be making arrests on minor drug charges. “The de facto decriminalization of drugs may have an impact,” he told the Times.  “We do know that there’s a lot less arrests being made, which means there are a lot more people on the streets using drugs.”

In a recent survey of 40 of the state’s 58 county superior courts conducted by the Judicial Council of California Courts, those courts reported a slight increase in failures to appear for misdemeanor arraignments since Proposition 47 took effect. Ken Corney, who is the chief of police in Ventura and the president of the California Police Chiefs Association, told the Times, “If people aren’t showing up in court, if they’re not going to go to drug court, we’re going to see what we’re seeing, which is increased crime rates in our communities.”

What Are the Types of Drug Possession Charges Currently Used in California?

California law recognizes different types of drug (also called controlled substances) possession. There’s either simple possession, meaning someone had the drug only for personal use. Then there’s possession with intent to sell.

Where the drugs are found affects charges too. Actual possession means the drugs were found on the person’s body, such as in their pockets. Constructive possession means the person didn’t have the drugs on them, but they were found in a place that reasonably connects the drugs to the person, such as in their bedroom or car’s glove compartment. Joint possession is when it appears the drugs belong to two or more people. If two people share the bedroom where the drugs were found or were riding in the car together, they could both be charged with joint possession.

What the outcome is if convicted for any of these possession charges depends on the type of drug and the amount found in the person’s possession. If you’ve been charged with drug possession of any kind, it’s best to have an experienced drug possession attorney help you with your case to identify potential defenses to have charges reduced or dropped.

What Are Possible Defenses to Drug Possession Charges?

There are many, and it’s another reason to work with a knowledgeable drug possession attorney. A few examples include:

  • The person charged didn’t know the drugs were there (for example, in the glove compartment of a car they shared with someone). This is most valuable in having charges reduced, but not as likely to have them dismissed.
  • The drugs belong to someone else.
  • The drugs were issued via a legal prescription.
  • The search and seizure that found the drugs was illegal. The police have specific procedures to follow in these cases. If they didn’t follow them, that could be grounds to have the case dismissed.

What Should I Do if I’ve Been Charged with Drug Possession?

Call the SoCal Law Network at 949-305-7995 to set up a free consultation. We can help determine if your charges are minor enough to qualify for the Prop 47 misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Given that felonies are much more serious and have far more severe consequences, it’s in your best interests to see if the charges could either be dropped altogether or reduced to a misdemeanor. The sooner we can begin working on your case, the better.