Earlier this year, Johnston Police heard rumors circulating around the school system, regarding possible drug use among high school students.
On Law Day, Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza stood in the Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School Library, facing a large group of civics students.
A member of the audience asked Razza: “Have you had experience of marijuana being suspected in schools?”
Razza took a deep breath and told them about the recent suspicions, and the actions his department took following what seemed like credible accusations.
“We had some … what I’ll call some unsubstantiated rumors of some juveniles bringing marijuana into the high school very recently,” Razza told the students during last month’s Law Day event. “What we did do, is, I coordinated my efforts with (Johnston Schools Superintendent) Dr. (Bernard) DiLullo, and discussed how we were going to approach the situation. We used some drug-sniffing dogs from some other jurisdictions. We did a locker search, in expectations of possibly detecting marijuana in some lockers. And that didn’t come into fruition.”
The students sat in silence. A realization seemed to sweep the room. The law affects them. These students, quickly outgrowing childhood, are bound to encounter law enforcement at some point in the near future. And as members of society, they’ll need to familiarize themselves with the local, state and federal laws.
Even as the laws are rapidly changing around all of us, Ferri Middle School Civics Teacher Columbia “Cully” Fleming gathered three legal professionals to help shed some light on the legal process and criminal justice system.
“Every year eighth grade students from Team 8 white participate in Law Day,” Fleming explained. “They are visited by a Superior Court Judge, lawyer and a police officer. What students are taught in Civics class really pertains to the outside world (society).”
Razza joined Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Joseph A. Montalbano and Johnston Town Council Vice President and mayoral candidate Joseph Polisena Jr., participating in this semester’s Law Day. They delivered lectures and fielded questions.
“Interacting with our youth is extremely important and when given the opportunity to speak about the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and our legal system at Ferri Middle School on Law Day, I was more than thrilled,” Razza said. “I was honored to give my law enforcement perspective and speak along with (Judge) Montalbano and (Joe) Polisena Jr., an attorney with experience with the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office.”
The questions weren’t all softballs, but the legal minds in the room did their best to deliver solid, truthful hits.
“I think the three of us were able to provide valuable insight and a unique perspective of the law and our own individual experiences in its application and importance,” Razza said.
One student raised his hand with a question: “How often, when you pull someone over, and you suspect they are DUI … is it mainly because of marijuana or alcohol?”
The question carried particular weight, as the Rhode Island General Assembly was on the cusp of legalizing recreational adult cannabis use in the Ocean State. On Law Day, the legislation had not yet passed. But it would just a couple weeks later.
“The majority of our DUIs are alcohol related,” Razza said, going on to explain the DUI investigation process. “If they are suspected of (driving under the influence of) some other type of illegal substance, and we’re not able to detect through the use of a Breathalyzer, and they consent to blood, then we’ll take them for a blood test … And we’ll determine that. Now, the way the law is written, if there’s substantial injury or death, we can actually get a search warrant for that blood.”
One of the biggest challenges law enforcement may face, now that cannabis use has been legalized, is the enforcement of DUI laws when it can be impossible to tell how recently someone consumed or smoked cannabis (the drug’s active ingredients can remain in a user’s system for a month after ingestion).
“You get stopped for suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, the officer will ask you to consent to a series of standardized field sobriety tests … if you pass, then good,” Razza told the students. “If you don’t pass, they’re going to read you your rights. They’re called ‘rights for use at the scene.’ Basically, it’s almost like Miranda rights. You’re taken back to the station. You’re asked to consent to a breath test. If you don’t take the breath test, then it goes down as a refusal. Then you’re going to go to court and we’re going to dual charge you for refusal and DUI. And then we’ll let the defense work it out.”
Those steps become more complicated when marijuana is the suspected intoxicating substance. Police and prosecutors are currently struggling with reconciling new cannabis legislation with existing criminal statutes.
One student shyly raised his hand, and asked quietly: “Can’t you just like, stop the marijuana coming into America itself, by you know, strengthening the security?”
“I know maybe you people never heard about this before,” Razza replied. “They used to call it the ‘War on Drugs.’ But, quite frankly, you know why they call it ‘weed,’ right? It literally grows like a weed. And … all you need is one seed of this thing, and you can grow it just about anywhere. Some people grow it in their house; they grow it legally.”
And some people grow cannabis in their homes outside the realms of law.
“We’ve hit a few houses in Johnston where they have had illegal marijuana grows,” Razza told the students. “Really, they’re setting up a greenhouse in their house, and their growing the stuff. So, it’s very accessible. It’s not that it’s coming in from out of America. It’s all around us. To your point, being able to control it is very difficult.”
Razza told the students that a “confidential tip” may lead to “surveillance,” and eventually a search warrant and possible arrest.
“When we will actually hit a house, or an illegal grow — we call it, we’ll take everything down to the wall sockets,” Razza said.
Law Day 2022 happened just a couple weeks prior to one of the nation’s worst school mass shootings. On May 24, a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in a massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
The Uvalde mass shooting was far from the first of its kind in the United States — though it is surely one of the most horrific. Two weeks before the tragedy, students at Ferri Middle School were already pondering gun violence.
“There have been a lot of shootings lately,” one student said to Razza. “Like, are you doing anything to stop them?”
Razza took a moment and weighed his words carefully.
“If you’re talking about the number of guns out there … We’re very fortunate that we don’t have some of the, we’ll call them, crimes of gun violence, or shootings in Johnston, rather than some other municipalities, or cities or towns,” Razza said. “But yeah, gun violence is definitely up. Access to guns is definitely up. Access to illegal guns is definitely up.”
The room briefly discussed the Second Amendment, and the need to balance gun rights with the rights of students to live and learn in an atmosphere free of mortal fear.
“And really, a lot of it is due to the fact that there are more and more guns out there, and more and more people are purchasing guns,” Razza explained to the class. “I can tell you this right now, that there’s a background check done actually (purchase a gun). We average maybe 60 gun checks a month. Which, back a few years ago (was far less).”
Society’s changing. Its laws are changing. And the students — who themselves are changing rapidly, mentally and physically — will likely have many more legal questions as they grow and eventually search to find a place in their community.
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