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NYPD no longer arresting for misdemeanor marijuana, issuing summons instead

Richmond County District Attorney: “This should free up police manpower to pursue cases of greater magnitude while relieving some of the congestion in the courts.”

By JC Sevcik
NYPD no longer arresting for misdemeanor marijuana, issuing summons instead
The NYPD announced a new policy Monday as part of its stop-and-frisk reform: people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana will no longer be arrested and will instead be issued a summons to appear in court. UPI/John Angelillo | License Photo

NEW YORK, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- The NYPD announced Monday it will no longer arrest people over misdemeanor marijuana charges.

The policy change means instead of getting handcuffed and taken to a station to be booked and finger printed before either being released with a court date or held overnight to be arraigned by a judge, people in possession of a small amount of pot will now be issued a ticketed fine or a summons to appear in court at a later date.

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The announcement has met with mixed reaction from New Yorkers.

Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins said, "I think it's sad. I think this is the beginning of an avalanche. Basically, what [the policy is] doing is equating an illegal substance to a parking ticket."

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"It's saying that it's OK to smoke marijuana because it's now less of a crime, but overall we know drugs are harmful," said Sam Pirozzolo, vice-president of the NYC Parents Union, who's concerned the policy "sends a very mixed message to our children."

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But the Drug Policy Alliance believes the announcement is a positive thing because African American and Latino communities have historically been disproportionately targeted by the NYPD's drug policies.

"Most of those arrested are young men of color, even though young white men use marijuana at higher rates," the group said in a statement.

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A study from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project reported 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the city during the first eight months of 2014 were black or Hispanic.

NYPD's Commisioner Bill Bratton has faced heavy criticism about the department's racial bias after the death of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on a platform of police policy reform, promising to reign in what many viewed as the NYPD's excessive stop-and-frisk practices which reached their height under the city's previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

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Despite the legislature decriminalizing minor marijuana possession not in public view in the city in 1977, police again began routinely arresting people for pot in the mid 90's. Post 9/11 stop-and-frisk practices found officers often stopping people and asking them to empty their pockets, leading to a spike in arrests for misdemeanor possession -- more than 28,000 in 2013 alone.

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The new policy could also have the added benefit of not burdening young people -- especially those of color -- with a criminal record.

"Too many young people are being arrested for low-level drug charges that leave a permanent stain on their records for what should be a violation," said Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson.

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Thompson, a criminal justice reform advocate who ran on the promise that he would stop prosecuting minor marijuana charges, is worried the new policy may subvert justice in a different way though.

"In order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review. 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."

The particulars of how the policy will be instituted—what amount constitutes a non-criminal offense, will a lit joint be handled differently than a baggie, etc.—are still unclear, and Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, stressed that clarity on the policy from the top down is necessary.

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"Anything less will result in our members being held responsible for a failed policy by a discipline obsessed police department and the multiple levels of police oversight it has," he said.

"We do not want police officers left holding the bag if crime rises because of poor policy," Lynch added.

While it will take time to sort out its application, the hope is that the new policy will take pressure of communities of color and New York City's overburdened justice system.

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"This should free up police manpower to pursue cases of greater magnitude while relieving some of the congestion in the courts," said Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan.

NYPD Marijuana Operations Order by Staten Island Advance/SILive.com

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