ADVERTISEMENT

NYC borough won't prosecute low-level pot offenses

  • Article by: JENNIFER PELTZ
  • Associated Press
  • July 8, 2014 - 6:50 PM

NEW YORK — Many of the thousands of people arrested on low-level marijuana possession charges in Brooklyn will likely get the cases dropped before even having to go to court, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced Tuesday in a novel move to address the heavy toll of pot arrests in the nation's largest city.

Many such cases have historically gotten dismissed anyway. But Thompson's new policy marks a departure by nixing the cases upfront, sparing arrestees time in custody and court — and sending a message that a DA is pushing forward a public discussion of pulling back from a spike in marijuana arrests citywide in recent decades.

"Given that these cases are ultimately — and predictably — dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify," he said. "We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit."

Critics of the arrests have long made that argument, and some of the city's four other DAs have also expressed reservations. The Bronx and Manhattan DAs have backed legislative proposals to ease the bottom-tier pot possession law. But some DA offices, including Staten Island's, note that they're tasked with enforcing the laws.

Brooklyn's move could mean similar arrests in the same city get handled differently depending on where they happen. Brooklyn prosecutors felt they had to take action on their own because of the high number of arrests in the borough, the city's most populous, said Eric Gonzalez, the DA's counsel.

Police Commissioner William Bratton said he shared many of Thompson's concerns and recognized the DA's prerogative to decide which cases to prosecute. But "in order to be effective, our police officers must enforce the laws of the state of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs," Bratton said in a statement.

The state partly decriminalized pot possession in 1977 but drew a dividing line: Having up to 25 grams is a non-criminal violation akin to a traffic ticket if it's in a purse or pocket but a misdemeanor if it's "open to public view."

Such misdemeanor arrests averaged about 2,100 a year in New York City from 1978 through 1995. Then they started soaring, peaking at 50,700 in 2011. They totaled 28,600 last year and came to 12,300 in the first five months of this year, down 5 percent from the same period last year, according to the latest available state Division of Criminal Justice statistics.

Thompson's new approach has some exceptions: people with arrest warrants or substantial criminal records and those smoking pot near children, for instance.

Advocates for less restrictive drug laws hailed the shift.

"It's good policy, and it's the right thing to do," said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance's director for New York state.

The alliance and other critics say the arrests have been racially disproportionate and reflect questionable police tactics. Eighty-six percent of last year's pot arrestees were black or Hispanic.

Police were reminded in September 2011 that they couldn't induce people to bring the drug out, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in 2013 that most low-level pot arrestees would get court appearance tickets instead of being booked and waiting for arraignment.

© 2014 Star Tribune