Marla Diamond/WCBS 880

Brooklyn DA's Plan Could Wipe Out 20,000 Pot Convictions

September 07, 2018 - 2:25 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- Tens of thousands of low-level marijuana convictions could be erased with the OK of Brooklyn's top prosecutor.

At a noon press conference Friday at the Lenox Road Baptist Church in Flatbush, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez urged people to ask courts to dismiss pot possession misdemeanors or violations. Legal aid groups have stepped up to help with the paperwork.

"Everyone who comes forward will be given the opportunity to have an attorney represent them for free," Gonzalez said.
He expects prosecutors will assent in the great majority of a potential 20,000 cases just since 1990.
He says it's unfair for people to carry convictions that wouldn't be pursued now. 

"To fail to address these past convictions would be hypocritical, and it would be ot turn a bling eye on all the harm caused by marajunana enforcement in prior years," Gonzalez said. "This is a big deal, it's part of our promise to enhance fairness and equity so past convictions don't continue to hold people back."

Gonzalez told WCBS 880’s Michael Wallace that his office is working with the two major public defender agencies in Brooklyn – the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services – and the court system to get convictions vacated.

His office will be holding a "begin again" event for those without standing warrants and prior convictions Sept. 21 and 22 at the Lenox Road Baptist Church on Nostrand Avenue.

“We’re looking to have people come in, fill out an application – they’ll be given a free defense attorney to talk about their case. The defense attorney will write up the motion. My office will review it. If we agree with it, we’ll go to court and consent to having that person’s conviction vacated,” Gonzalez said.

Judges have not taken any issue with Gonzalez’s plan, even though it will require their time.

“The court system has been tremendous; a tremendous ally trying to help reform the justice system. Something like this is very unusual, and it’s very unique, because we don’t normally have something that has convicted tens of thousands of people, and then that no longer is something that’s going to be prosecuted,” he told Wallace.

Gonzalez noted that nine states already have legalized marijuana – and while it is not clear what the future is on that front for New York, criminal prosecutions for low-level marijuana offenses are over.

He noted further that marijuana arrests and convictions spiked during the era of stop, question, and frisk policing.

 “We looked at the numbers, and before stop and frisk really started in earnest, we had about between 2 and 300 arrests that resulted in a criminal conviction, and then as we moved more into the stop and frisk era, those convictions were like over 2,000 a year,” Gonzalez said. “So stop and frisk, and the heavy enforcement of marijuana laws, really increased the number of cases that the office was prosecuting and convicting people on.”

Gonzalez and Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr., both Democrats, recently decided to decline to prosecute most misdemeanor pot possession cases. They're still being prosecuted in New York City's other three boroughs. 

Gonzalez says his office has reduced the number of marijuana prosecutions by 90 percent, accepting only a dozen cases in the months of July and August.
Recreational marijuana is illegal in New York state, although Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a panel to draft legislation that could legalize it. 

The NYPD announced in June that officers will not arrest those caught smoking or possessing small amounts of pot. The policy went into effect last week.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)