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Manhattan DA Drops Over 3,000 Open Marijuana Cases Dating Back to 1978

Manhattan DA Cy Vance’s move vacates warrants and charges for open cases, but it doesn’t expunge prior convictions.

Adam Drury

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Legal Marijuana and Restorative Justice
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Reuters is reporting a Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance dropped 3,042 open cannabis possession and consumption cases today. The cases, dating back to 1978, will have outstanding warrants vacated and the underlying charges dismissed. New York City Criminal Court Judge Kevin McGrath ordered the cases to be sealed within 90 days.

Manhattan DA Drops Open Cases, Not Prior Convictions

Earlier this summer, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced a new “decline to prosecute” policy for his office. The policy ordered prosecutors to stop filing charges against anyone booked on minor marijuana violations. The change effectively decriminalizes cannabis in the courtroom, and the DA’s office expects prosecutions to drop 96 percent.

Vance’s move today stems from the decline to prosecute policy. Prosecutors aren’t going to pursue charges for new marijuana violations the policy covers. And they aren’t going to go after open cases dating back to 1978, either.

In court today, Vance framed the move to drop the outstanding warrants and charges as a measure “in the interest of justice.” “By vacating these warrants, we are preventing unnecessary future interactions with the criminal justice system,” Vance said.

But there are practical considerations in play, also. The Manhattan DA’s office is short on the resources it needs to even prosecute the open cases. Vance described the backlog as a “burden” he was happy to lose.

Manhattan Prosecutors Are Only Dropping Low-Level Cases

The DA’s decision to vacate warrants and drop charges doesn’t apply to every open marijuana case, however. It only applies to misdemeanor and violation cases where a warrant was issued because a defendant didn’t appear in court. And it doesn’t apply to anyone charged with selling or distributing cannabis. Vance’s office simply combed through its files and removed every one where misdemeanor cannabis possession or smoking was the only remaining charge.

In other words, Vance’s move isn’t an expungement. It doesn’t clear past marijuana convictions, as Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has moved to do. Last week, Gonzalez announced the beginning of a process to dismiss tens of thousands of past marijuana convictions. Both DAs have instructed their offices to stop prosecuting the majority of cases where defendants stand accused of possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Leniency efforts by DAs in the courtroom are being echoed by new NYPD postures in the street. Rather than making arrests, the NYPD is encouraging officers to issue court summons, i.e. “weed tickets,” for consumption and possession cases that aren’t a threat to public safety.

Vacating more than 3,000 warrants does more than eliminating the need for divisive enforcement. It also eliminates many of the knock-down effects of having an open warrant. People with open warrants face difficulties finding housing and jobs and can even have their immigration status revoked.

According to the Manhattan DA’s office, nearly 80 percent of New Yorkers whose warrants courts will vacate are people of color. Nearly half of them were 25 or younger when police arrested them.

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