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Can the police decide not to arrest someone who has committed a crime?
Yes, and approximately 250 California teens are probably very happy that such police discretion exists. The group of high school students was pulled over while recently en route to Utah for a ski weekend. A convenience store clerk had spotted them smoking pot.
Though Elko Police Chief Don Sumwalt found pipes, bongs and several pounds of marijuana on the 5 buses, he offered them a choice:
Give up the pot or go to jail.
Though this is an extreme example of police discretion, Chief Don Sumwalt's actions are not out of the ordinary. Law enforcement can, and often does, decline to arrest and cite criminals.
Some officers only exercise such discretion when choosing not to write a traffic ticket. Some won't arrest a criminal who provides critical information. And others decline to arrest when there is a larger department policy at work, such as decriminalization.
In this case, Chief Sumwalt declined to arrest the teens because "logistically it would have been a nightmare," reports the Associated Press. The small town of Elko doesn't have the resources to house 250 teens, call their parents or figure out what belonged to whom.
It thus made more sense to confiscate the drugs and paraphernalia. And to give the teens a lecture.
In addition to exercising his police discretion, Chief Don Sumwalt told the Associated Press that he exercised his fatherly discretion. He gave each bus a lecture about drug safety and skiing sober. It was probably met with loud groans.