From arrest to arraignment, New York City law enforcement officials and prosecutors are making major changes to they way they handle minor, non-violent cannabis offenses. Over the weekend, the New York Police Department adopted a policy change that’s letting the city’s cannabis consumers breathe a little easier. As of Saturday, officers will no longer automatically arrest people for smoking marijuana in public. Echoing changes on the streets, district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn are ordering prosecutors to drop cases involving minor cannabis use and possession. And in Brooklyn, District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has opened a process to dismiss tens of thousands of past marijuana convictions.
New York City District Attorneys Spearhead Marijuana Decriminalization
District attorneys are elected officials. And in New York City, all five of them are Democrats. Two, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, have instructed their offices to stop prosecuting the majority of cases where defendants stand accused of possessing small amounts of marijuana.
But the “decline to prosecute” policy is only part of the two district attorneys’ plans to decriminalize cannabis in the court room. In step with criminal record expungement measures elsewhere in the country, Brooklyn DA Gonzalez announced Friday that people with marijuana convictions can request to have their convictions dismissed.
Prosecutors first have to consent to the request for dismissal, and a judge has to rule to approve it. Traditionally, however, judges agree to dismiss convictions if the prosecutor consents. And Gonzalez states that his office plans to consent to the vast majority of 20,000 cases potentially eligible for dismissal since 1990.
Brooklyn’s new policy, in this respect, is unique from expungement efforts in places like Washington and California. In those states, expungement efforts began only after cannabis became legal for adult-use. In Brooklyn, however, the process for dismissals is open even with criminal charges still on the books. “It’s a little unfair to say we’re no longer prosecuting these cases, but to have these folks carry these convictions for the rest of their lives,” Gonzales told the AP.
Dismissal Policy Comes as NYPD Halt Arrests for Public Cannabis Consumption
Outside the courtroom, New Yorkers will also experience relief from arrest for public cannabis consumption. Since 2014, a city policy has encouraged NYPD officers to issue court summons, aka “weed tickets,” for instances of cannabis possession up to 25 grams. But officers still made minor misdemeanor arrests for anyone caught smoking cannabis in public.
Starting last Saturday, however, the NYPD has directed officers to issue those tickets in the majority of cannabis consumption cases. Officers will still make an arrest if the suspect has an open warrant, is on parole or probation, or deemed a threat to public safety. Police Commissioner James O’Neill is supporting the change in enforcement stance. Officials expect the new policy to lead to 10,000 fewer arrests at least.
The policy changes mean that New Yorkers without serious criminal records can stop worrying about getting arrested for public cannabis consumption and possession. With prosecutors in two of five boroughs declining to even prosecute minor marijuana charges, there’s much less incentive for cops to book people. Smoking and possessing cannabis is still illegal, though. Get caught, and you’ll end up with a court summons and a fine.