Mar 15, 2022 - News

Settlement reached over arrest of 64 partygoers on marijuana charge

Illustration of a pattern of gavels.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A lawsuit has been settled over the mass arrest of 64 partygoers on marijuana charges.

Driving the news: The defendants — the Cartersville Police Department, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force — will pay $900,000 as part of the settlement, the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a news release.

  • The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Center and Marietta-based Merchant Law Firm.

Why it matters: It’s not possible for all 64 people to possess that same amount of marijuana, says Gerald Griggs, an attorney and past vice president of the Georgia NAACP, which organized a campaign to get the charges dropped.

  • “I always thought it was a civil rights violation and that the young people’s rights needed to be protected,” he tells Axios

Catch up quick: Cartersville officers were dispatched on New Year’s Eve in 2017 to a home after getting reports of gunshots. Officers said they smelled marijuana and entered the house without consent or a warrant, the Southern Center says.

  • Dozens of people ranging in age from 15 to 30, the majority of whom were Black and other people of color, were attending a birthday party at the home.
  • Police, who found less than an ounce of marijuana in the home, arrested the partygoers.

The Drug Task Force initially said they found evidence of widespread drug use and that the 64 people were charged with possession of marijuana less than an ounce, a misdemeanor, because it was within “everyone’s reach or control.”

Representatives from the city of Cartersville did not respond to Axios’ requests for comment. Nearly two weeks later after the arrests, the Bartow County district attorney dropped the charges, saying that the evidence was “insufficient to convict” the 64 defendants.

What they’re saying: Ebony Brown, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said officers immediately treated everyone at the party like suspects.

  • “This type of guilt-by-association policing is ripe for the abuses you see here, and the real-world consequences for people like our plaintiffs are devastating,” she said.

Despite the settlement, the Southern Center says the city of Cartersville has not amended its policy that allows officers to enter homes when they smell what they think is marijuana.

  • John Merchant of The Merchant Law Firm says in a news release that officers had plenty of time to investigate the circumstances before raiding the home and arresting his clients “simply for being present at the party.”
  • “We are happy we were able to resolve the case, and we remain hopeful that these agencies will make the necessary changes to ensure this does not happen again,” he said.
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