Findings of racial disparity in Broward marijuana arrests pits Satz, Finkelstein

 By Dan Christensen, 

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, left, and State Attorney Mike Satz

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, left, and State Attorney Mike Satz

Recent findings that blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Broward has led State Attorney Mike Satz to issue an unusual personal defense of himself, his office and local police.

The American Civil Liberties Union national report on racial disparities, The War on Marijuana – In Black and White, found that in 2010 Broward’s black residents were 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana. That was true even though the percentage of blacks and whites that use marijuana nationwide is about equal, the report says.

Satz did not respond when the report was released last month to little notice in the local media. But he did on Friday after receiving a highly critical letter about its findings earlier in the week from his constitutional counterpart and longtime antagonist, Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.

“These numbers unequivocally show that black residents are targeted by law enforcement,” said Finkelstein. “These numbers fall on your shoulders as the chief law enforcement officer in Broward County. If you did not know that law enforcement was targeting black communities, you were not doing your job.

“Your decision to be a passive State Attorney has given police free rein in the black community. Your failure to lead for the last 38 years has allowed racism to become institutionalized in Broward,” Finkelstein said. Click to see the Finkelstein letter.


Satz fired back in a letter that used the words irrational, reckless and hysterical to describe Finkelstein’s remarks. He pointed out that racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Broward, while equal to the national average, was lower than in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Florida as a whole.

“While any form of racial disparity is cause for concern and review, nothing in the ACLU’s analysis addresses the larger problem – so often ignored by your personal grandstanding – of increased crime in underprivileged minority communities,” said Satz. He noted his concern for substance abuse issues motivated his support for drug court and pretrial intervention programs “to facilitate rehabilitation.”

“I have heard you state your desire to legalize marijuana,” Satz told Finkelstein. “It appears in your quest you have decided to besmirch the reputation of all law enforcement in Broward County by turning what is a nationwide issue into a racial problem unique to our community.” Click to see the Satz letter.

In an interview, Finkelstein said, “Let’s see. His defense is that we have a national problem and that I’m no worse than anyone else. That’s his defense?”

The back and forth aside, the ACLU’s study makes clear that Florida – including Broward – evinces serious racial disparities when it comes to misdemeanor marijuana arrests.

While Broward’s African-American residents were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana – with a rate of arrest the same as the national average – disparities were even greater elsewhere in South Florida.


In Miami-Dade, blacks were more than five times as likely to be charged by police. In Palm Beach, 4.8 times more likely.

But the ACLU report also shows that in 2010 Broward ranked 12th in the nation for the number of blacks arrested for marijuana possession. Specifically, nearly 60 percent of the 6,061 people arrested on that charge in Broward were black.

In Florida, Broward topped Miami-Dade, Orange (Orlando) and Hillsborough (Tampa) counties in the percent of blacks arrested for possessing pot.

Finkelstein’s letter criticized Satz for allowing that to happen. Satz replied that he doesn’t make law or arrest suspects. “I enforce the law and file appropriate charges when lawful arrests are made by our police agencies,” he wrote.

The ACLU’s study examined FBI Uniform Crime Reporting statistics and the Census Bureau’s annual county population estimates to calculate marijuana possession arrest rates by race from 2001 to 2010. It is the first study to do that for all 50 states, their respective counties and the District of Columbia.

More than 8 million people were arrested on marijuana charges during that time, 88 percent of which were for possession, according to the study.

Possession arrests are up, the report says, and now account for nearly half of all drug arrests in the U.S. Combined, states spent more than $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws, the report says.

The report comes amid a shift in public opinion across the country toward support for the legalization of marijuana. Two states, Washington and Colorado, became the first last year to legalize recreational marijuana use.

Such a step is unlikely in conservative Florida, but The Miami Herald nevertheless reported poll results in February that found seven in 10 Florida voters supported a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana in the state. The poll was from a group seeking to put such a measure on the ballot in 2014.


The clash between Finkelstein and Satz is the latest in a three-year-old wrangle in which the public defender has accused Broward’s longtime state attorney of maintaining a “double standard of justice,” favoring rich over poor and tolerating police misconduct.

A way to ameliorate Broward’s racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession has been proposed by Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack, head of the misdemeanor drug court.

The change would funnel every marijuana arrest into her courtroom – creating a new “marijuana court” where instead of pleading guilty or not guilty defendants could opt to go through drug treatment. Those who complete the program would see their charges dismissed and their record clean.

Convicted defendants “normally get a fine, court costs and it goes on their record,” said Pollack. “But that will take away scholarships, and you can’t get into the military or rent some apartments or get a decent job.”

Finkelstein supports Pollack’s idea. Satz is considering it.

“I wish he would give me a yea,” said the judge. “I’ve made calls into the supervising attorneys over in county court and they are still undecided. It disturbs me.”


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Latest comments

  • The issue is not who is prosecuted the most…

    ‘FREEDOM’ is the issue…after all, this is a ‘free’ country…

    When I look back on what I was taught in Florida’s public schools, I could just bust out crying… either the teachers I loved and respected LIED…or, ‘our’ government today is lying…

    What have we become?
    What we are seeing today is NOT freedom…

    My name is Hugh Yonn…I spent 5 years in Federal Prison for marijuana offenses…now, I’m writing about the escapades that put me there…and some of the people I met while ‘vacationing with the Feds’…I would be honored if you took a look at my books…I need the money…I’m trying to make up for 5 wasted years…they’re on…the table of contents are stories by themselves…

  • Judge Gisele is right on and SA Satz should work with her.It’s a common sense approach.

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