Apparently, in some parts of the United States, even thinking about weed is grounds for arrest.

The police chief of Columbia, South Carolina, threatened to “find” a local Facebook user who commented that officers should spend less time trying to bust a “stoner that’s not bothering anyone” and more time trying to solve a recent shooting that left an 18-year-old woman paralyzed.

After the poster, Brandon Whitmer, noted that “it’ll be legal here one day anyway,” Interim Chief Ruben Santiago of the Columbia Police Department replied:

“Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.”

Santiago, supposedly one of the most knowledgeable people in Columbia law enforcement, has at least two fundamental misunderstandings of criminal law.

Police LightsFirst, “reasonable suspicion” is the minimum amount of evidence an officer must have before she can stop someone on the street. It’s not enough to make an arrest or obtain a search warrant, but it is enough to detain a suspect briefly and search him for weapons. Reasonable suspicion requires “specific and articulate facts,” and a statement that “pot should be legal” or “pot is great!” doesn’t meet that standard.

Second, the First Amendment protects almost all forms of speech, and there’s no exception for statements that support, encourage or advocate crimes – unless they incite readers to imminent violence.

Saying you support an illegal act is protected speech and can’t form reasonable suspicion for the police to do much of anything. American courts have allowed authors to publish books instructing hit men on how to get away with murder. So Santiago will be sorely disappointed if he thinks he can lawfully arrest someone for advocating pot.

The trouble for the police chief started when he posted a status update on the Facebook page of the Columbia Police Department. The post indicated officers had arrested a man and seized $40,000 worth of weed from his home.

Several commenters promptly complained the arrest was a waste of resources. “How many unsolved murders and rapes do you have in your jurisdiction?” one asked. “Maybe you should focus your attention on those instead?” Another posted, “Pot should be legal.”

And Whitmer wrote the following: “Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that’s not bothering anyone. It’ll be legal here one day anyway.” Five Points is a Columbia neighborhood.

It’s not clear what if anything set Whitmer’s comment apart from the others, but that was the one Santiago chose to attack. The chief’s comment was removed shortly after it appeared, but it was soon replaced by another post, also written by Santiago:

“I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it’s reasonable to believe you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity . . . Why would someone feel threatened if you are not doing anything wrong?”

Never mind that the vast majority of people who support legalization don’t smoke weed. Fifty-eight percent of Americans want to see cannabis made legal, while only 12 percent used within the last year, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a member of law enforcement is unclear about marijuana guidelines.

The bigger issue is why the police chief of South Carolina’s largest city would feel the need to threaten jail time over a common political disagreement.

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