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Chatham County police are now operating under an updated general offenses ordinance mandating enforcement changes regarding marijuana possession, begging, sleeping in vehicles and other infractions.

The Chatham County Commissioners approved the proposed changes at the August 7 meeting.

According to CCPD Chief Jeff Hadley, these updates were long overdue. The ordinances hadn’t been updated since the 1990s, before the CCPD was merged with Savannah’s police department; in 2018 the agencies were demerged.

“We’re still a work in progress, even two years later,” Hadley said of the reestablished CCPD, while explaining that many of the requested ordinance changes were intended to provide uniformity with current Savannah Police Department policies. “We wanted to be consistent with the city of Savannah because we share so many borders.”

Some changes to the CCPD’s general offenses ordinance raised concerns among the commissioners. Among those is a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that complicates enforcement of the new begging statute. Savannah police ceased enforcement of the municipality’s panhandling rules following the high court’s ruling.

Here’s a rundown of the changes approved Friday.

Marijuana possession and possession of a drug-related object

According to an agenda-item memo, “the most significant change makes possession of marijuana less than an ounce and possession of a drug-related object local offenses that would not require incarceration under certain conditions.”

In 2018, Savannah’s City Council passed an ordinance that decriminalized marijuana possession of less than an ounce. Savannah police now issue a citation for the offense.

“I think it’s a very reasonable and fair approach,” Hadley said of the change in marijuana enforcement codes. “We don’t want to be more heavy-handed.”

Hadley added that most people arrested for these marijuana-related offenses are often charged with other infractions, which could result in their being jailed for other violations.

Commissioner Dean Kicklighter requested that a vote on this statute be continued to a future meeting to allow for public input on the proposal. Kicklighter’s request was ignored when the board was called to vote on the entire general offenses ordinance.

Begging

According to the text of the new panhandling ordinance, “it shall be unlawful for any person to beg or solicit money or aid in his own behalf at any place of business, house or worship or upon any of the street, sidewalk or right of way of the county.”

However, the 2015 Supreme Court decision in the case of Reed v. Town of Gilbert has resulted in national ramifications on begging ordinances by defending the practice as a form of protected free speech.

The point of adding the begging ordiance was to establish consistency with the corresponding statute on the SPD books, even if the statute is not being enforced, Hadley said.

Sleeping in vehicles

The ordinance text states: “It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to lodge in, on or about any automobile, truck, trailer, RV, camper, or similar vehicle in any County street, right-of-way, at any County owned or operated parks, boat ramps, grounds, recreational facilities, county owned parking lot, or other public property of Chatham County.”

Commissioner Chester Ellis inquired about the timing of this statute as hundreds of Chatham residents face eviction this summer following the coronavirus pandemic’s economic devastation. Some may soon be sheltering in their vehicles as a result.

Any CCPD officer who encountered someone sleeping in a vehicle would have discretion over what level of enforcement to apply to the detained occupant, said Assistant County Attorney Jennifer Davenport said that

Chief Hadley noted that the discussions to update the general offenses ordinance, including the ban on sleeping in vehicles, began in mid-2019. The changes are in no way related to any possible increase of pandemic-related homelessness in Chatham County, he said.

Shoplifting

Prior to Aug. 7, Chatham County had no shoplifting ordinance on the books for its unincorporated areas, partially because retail outlets were not as common outside of municipalities when the county’s codes were last revised in the 1990s.

The newly enacted shoplifting rules state that this ordinance will apply to anyone caught “with the intent of appropriating merchandise totaling less than $30 or food to his or her own use without paying for the same or to deprive the owner of possession thereof or of the value thereof.”

Noise above certain levels prohibited by vehicle traffic

One segment of the new general offenses ordinance that required clarification at the commission meeting was a ban on “any noise disturbance, or any noise from a vehicle on any public roadway in excess of the limits for such noise maximum permissible sound levels of 55 (decibels).”

Asked if this rule will apply to noisy construction vehicles in the vicinity of development projects, Davenport clarified that this ordinance only applies to private vehicles, such as in the case of a motorist playing music on their car stereo, and that noise related to development works is regulated by other statutes.

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