It is not an overstatement to say that for all the good work they’ve done, the NYPD’s approach to misdemeanor marijuana possession over the last five decades is the department’s defining legacy. It’s not a good one: although low-level possession has been decriminalized since 1977, cops have used the stop-and-frisk policy to compel “suspects” to empty their pockets, exposing contraband to the public view, and possessors to arrest and a series of punishments, including a $500 fine and up to three months’ jailtime. And that’s just for first-time offenders; the effects become increasingly deleterious for second-, third-, and fourth-time offenders.
It’s not just that families and lives are ruined—although they most certainly are—but the amount of money spent enforcing petty drug laws, the erosion of trust between the police force and the citizenry its sworn to protect, and the inculcation of a certain Us vs. Them mindset in both the cops and local communities, particularly poor and minority populations (in Brooklyn, a black person is almost ten times’ more likely to be arrested for pot possession than a white person). New York spent nearly $700 million enforcing pot laws in 2010, but the total cost of this approach to drug enforcement is many times higher, an incalculable figure that can’t be expressed numerically.
That’s why this morning’s report from the New York Times that the NYPD is “poised” to stop making arrests for low-level marijuana possession is good news (potentially—more on that anon). According to unnamed law enforcement officials, under the proposed changes the police department would instead issue court summonses to people found with “small amounts” of marijuana, who would then be allowed to continue on their way without being arrested. If the new policies are implemented, they would mark Mayor de Blasio’s biggest move toward curbing the injurious effects of the NYPD’s excessive use of the aggressive policing techniques, such as stop-and-frisk, that comprise the theory of policing espoused by current police commissioner William Bratton.
One of the leading advocates for marijuana prosecution reform has been none other than Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who in July announced that his office would stop prosecuting citizens in otherwise good standing who are arrested with two or fewer ounces of weed. (Since the announcement, the DA’s office has dismissed 849 misdemeanor marijuana cases involving police arrests, about 34 percent of the total number of such cases in Brooklyn.) At the time, the NYPD distanced itself from Thompson’s policy, issuing a directive to its officers that included the line, “The Brooklyn DA’s new policy does not change any policy, practice or procedure of the NYPD.”
One might supposed DA Thompson would be a big supporter for the new policy shift that is expected to be announced today, but in the Times story, he expressed serious concerns about its ultimate effects, calling it, in the Times‘ words, an “end-run around the district attorneys that could end up hurting some of the very people the changes are supposed to help.”
That’s because a court summons issued without an accompanying arrest means that a case is not subject to prosecutorial review. “In order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review,” Thompson said. “By allowing these cases to avoid early review, by issuing a summons, there is a serious concern that many summonses will be issued without the safeguards currently in place. These cases will move forward even when due process violations might have occurred.”
There is also the possibility that many of the tickets will convert into arrest warrants anyway if the person misses a court date. As the Times points out, last year people failed to pay or show up to court about a quarter of the time for the summonses to the city’s lowest level criminal courts.
This week, Mayor de Blasio will begin meetings with each of the city’s five district attorneys in order to iron out the details of how the proposed policy changes might work in practice. There are several key questions that remain unknown, including: Will a lit joint be treated differently from a baggie of unsmoked buds? Will the 25 gram threshold between a misdemeanor, for which a summons is issued, and a felony be changed? How much will fines and court fees cost? Will a summons show up on a person’s criminal record? And etc. We’ll wait for answers with bated breath.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.