Stop and Trick

Trumped-up pot busts

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently told his officers to stop arresting people for publicly displaying marijuana after tricking them into committing that offense. In a September 19 “operations order,” Kelly reminded the city’s cops that “the public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject’s own volition” and that the charge is not legally appropriate “if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer’s discretion.”

The distinction is important because in New York possessing up to 25 grams (nearly an ounce) of marijuana is a citable offense similar to a traffic violation, while having marijuana “open to public view” is a misdemeanor, justifying an arrest. Research by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine indicates that police routinely pad their arrest numbers by converting the former offense into the latter, which helps explain why pot busts in New York City have exploded in the last decade and a half, despite the fact that possession of the drug has been decriminalized under state law since 1977.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Kelly in 2002, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has averaged nearly 39,000 low-level marijuana possession arrests a year, compared to less than 25,000 under Rudolph Giuliani, less than 1,000 under David Dinkins, and about 2,300 under Ed Koch. The pot busts are largely an outgrowth of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program, which focuses on supposedly suspicious individuals in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the arrestees are overwhelmingly black and Latino, and mostly young men. 

Levine found that “most of the people arrested in New York had a small amount of marijuana hidden in their possessions” and that “police typically discovered the marijuana by stopping and searching people, often by tricking and intimidating them into revealing it.” Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) have introduced a bill aimed at preventing such trumped-up arrests by treating public display the same as possession for small amounts of marijuana. 

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