Groups sue Jacksonville sheriff for disrupting petitioning

Friday, December 11, 1998

Two advocacy groups for medicinal marijuana filed suit in federal court last week claiming an officer with the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff's Office forcibly removed them from a church polling location while they were collecting petition signatures for a proposed ballot measure.

Members of the Cannabis Action Network and Floridians for Medical Rights claim that during the November general election they were legally gathering petitions for the Florida Medical Marijuana ballot initiative in front of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church.

Kevin Aplin of Floridians for Medical Rights said church officials asked the groups to leave, saying they were trespassing on private property. Aplin said church officials called the sheriff when group members refused to leave.

“It may be private property 364 days of the year, but once you agree to be a polling location, the walkway in and out of the polling station becomes public property,” Aplin said.
State election law requires petitioners to stand at least 50 feet from polling stations and refrain from blocking voters entering or exiting the polls.

“We were 150 feet away and there is absolutely no question that we were not blocking any egress,” Aplin said. “So they specifically targeted us because they didn't like the message.”

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office has not returned calls.

Marijuana advocates have faced several legal battles in Florida over the past year promoting the industrial and medicinal benefits of hemp. Last summer, the Cannabis Action Network staved off a Jacksonville Beach law it said was designed to keep the group from holding its annual Hempfest.

The group said – and a federal court agreed – that the city's special-events policy placed unreasonable financial and content-based requirements on it. The group has won similar cases against the cities of Miami, Melbourne, Orlando and Gainesville.

At each of those events, marijuana advocates circulated a petition to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. State law requires the group to secure 435,000 signatures from registered voters by the summer of 2000 in order to place the issue on the November general election ballot that year.

Aplin said the groups plan to file an emergency motion with the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Florida to prohibit the sheriff's office from halting petition efforts during an election next March.