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Manhattan, Brooklyn DAs To Stop Prosecuting Most Marijuana Cases; NYPD To Review Policy

May 15, 2018 - 9:08 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn said Tuesday that they will stop prosecuting most marijuana offenses.

Meanwhile, police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the department will form a 30-day working group to review its marijuana enforcement policy.

The Brooklyn district attorney stopped prosecuting most low-level marijuana offenses four years ago and the Manhattan district attorney plans to follow suit for an offense that has been taken off the books in some states but in New York disproportionately effects blacks and Latinos.

In a news release Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said beginning Aug. 1, his office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases.

“The dual mission of the Manhattan DA’s Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system,” Vance said in the news release. “The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement that he believes low-level marijuana offenses should be responded to with summons rather than arrests. He said racial disparities in arrests are “intractable and unacceptable,” and more must be done to ensure fairness and trust in the system.

“Three months ago we began a pilot program in which we declined to prosecute some instances of smoking marijuana in public where a public nuisance was not created, doubling the number of cases we declined to prosecute. In the coming weeks, we will work with the Police Department and the Mayor to identify the very small number of exceptions that raise public safety concerns, and any case that does not fall within these exceptions will no longer be prosecuted,” Gonzalez said in the statement.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on NY1 gave an explanation as to why he thinks this is happening.

"I do think a number of the arrests are fueled by complaints in communities. I do think that is an honest truth but that doesn't answer the whole question. If the disparity continues it's not acceptable," de Blasio said. "We've gotta look at the whole realm of policy options because we have to achieve a kind of policing in the city that everyone can see as fair and consistent."

Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society said Vance’s decision was “slightly heartening.” She said it seems that the district attorney has listened that the shift has to change when it comes to marijuana prosecutions.

“I mean look, it’s one thing for one district attorney to do it, and certainly, we saw that the Brooklyn DA under leadership of Ken Thompson has tried to do this, but this has to be statewide, and this has to be about changing the law, and this has to be about not only decriminalization, but legalization,” she told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace.

Meanwhile Tuesday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called on changes as to how low-level marijuana offenses are enforced by police.

As WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported, people caught smoking marijuana in public are now subject to arrest. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the offense should only warrant a ticket.

“I’m calling upon the NYPD to, instead of making arrests when someone is smoking pot in public, they should issue a summons,” Johnson said. “That’s a big difference.”

Johnson cited the racial disparity in arrests, noting that last year, 86 percent of those arrested for low-level marijuana offenses were black or Hispanic while only 9 percent were white.

“When you look at the fact that there are more arrests in a black-dominated district like Queens Village, as opposed to Forest Hills – same type of activity, and on and on around the city, there is a clear racial pattern,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton.

At a City Council hearing Monday, Police Commissioner James O'Neill told lawmakers he didn't know why the racial gap persisted, but insisted that the arrests are not racially motivated. He said police often make arrests in response to 311 or 911 complaints.

"There are quality of life issues here, we're looking to see why the disparity exists, I don't have an answer for you today," O'Neill said.

The police commissioner said 36 percent of the people arrested on marijuana charges last year had no criminal history.

Late Tuesday afternoon, O’Neill announced the working group to review marijuana enforcement will be composed of a cross-section of NYPD leadership. O’Neill said in a statement to the group that the NYPD has been reducing to reduce marijuana possession arrests and instead issue summonses since 2014, and the overall numbers reflect the approach – with arrests down 32 percent and summonses up 57 percent, while marijuana complaints are up 26 percent.

But O’Neill said while the NYPD does not target people based on race or other demographics, there are differences in arrest rates when it comes to race that go back many years.

“We need an honest assessment about why they exist, and balance it in the context of the public safety needs of all communities. The NYPD will review our practices to ensure enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness and trust at the root of Neighborhood Policing,” O’Neill said in the statement. “The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) came out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana last month, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) is co-sponsoring a bill that would make marijuana legal at the federal level.