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Austin voters to decide on decriminalizing small amounts of weed and banning no-knock warrants in May

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Austin voters will be asked in May if they want to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and do away with no-knock warrants.

The former practice is already police policy. In July 2020, the Austin Police Department said it would no longer ticket or arrest people for small amounts of marijuana.

The Austin City Council adopted a policy in 2020 to limit, but not prohibit, the use of no-knock warrants, which the police department wrote into their manual. If voters approve these measures, both would become part of the city’s code, essentially making them city law.

According to APD’s current manual, the department can use no-knock warrants when officer safety is an issue and with approval from both a commander and a judge. This type of warrant allows officers to enter premises without first announcing their presence; the practice become especially controversial following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Atatiana Jefferson. The police union president told KUT last week that he believes the department used three no-knock warrants last year; APD was not able to confirm this number by deadline.

The ban, if approved by voters, would outright prohibit no-knock warrants and require officers serving warrants to knock, announce their presence and wait 15 seconds before entering.

The election, which will be held May 7, is the result of a successful petition effort from the group Ground Game Texas. The nonprofit collected more than 30,000 signatures last year, and the Austin city clerk verified the signatures last week.

Once a petition is certified, City Council has several options: It can either make the policies city law or put them on a ballot. On Tuesday, the Austin City Council voted 7 to 3 to put these questions to voters, with Council members Greg Casar, Pio Renteria and Vanessa Fuentes vying to outright accept the changes.

“I think we could simply adopt the ordinance today. I think the community is likely to adopt it through their vote,” Casar said. “I would rather save us the expense.”

Neither Travis County nor the city of Austin could provide KUT with a cost estimate for the election by deadline. According to a city spokesperson, the decision on whether to decriminalize marijuana and ban no-knock warrants will be presented to voters as one question, not two separate ones.

Some Council members were adamant about putting the policies before voters so the laws would have more weight behind them.

“My motion to put this on the ballot is not an indication of me being opposed to the policies here,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said, before the vote. “It’s simply that I think that this is the best way to proceed with these questions.”

Mike Siegel, political director with Ground Game Texas, told KUT he wonders if by outright adopting the new policies, the city could open itself up to legal interference from the state. Possession of marijuana, even small amounts, remains illegal in Texas.

“I guess a majority of the Council was concerned about legal risk,” Siegel said. “There’s always this dynamic in Austin with Democrats being concerned that if they take action that’s perceived as progressive, (they will face) retribution from state government.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. This story has been corrected since publication to show that APD responded to a council resolution limiting no-knock warrants in 2020.

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