Pot Pat-Downs

Manufacturing misdemeanors


Thirty-five years ago, the New York state legislature decriminalized marijuana possession. Yet numbers released in February show that the New York Police Department (NYPD) last year arrested 50,684 people for carrying small amounts of pot, the second highest total ever.

The key to this mystery is the distinction between mere possession of marijuana, which is a citable offense subject to a maximum fine of $100 as long as the amount is no more than 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce), and "public display," which is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in jail. Research by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine indicates that New York cops routinely convert the first offense into the second by removing pot during pat-downs or instructing people to reveal any contraband they may be carrying.

Last September, responding to criticism of such bogus busts, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a directive reminding his officers 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." So far New York's Finest do not seem to be listening. They arrested more pot smokers last year than they did in 2010, and defense attorneys report that cops continue to manufacture misdemeanors through coercion or trickery.

Since 1996 the annual number of minor pot busts in New York City has more than quintupled, and Levine calculates that 87 percent have involved blacks or Latinos, even though whites (judging from survey data) are at least as likely to smoke pot. This disparity is not surprising, because the marijuana arrests seem to be largely an outgrowth of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" program, which focuses on supposedly suspicious individuals in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.

Last year New York police stopped and questioned a record 684,330 people without probable cause. As with the pot busts, 87 percent of these encounters involved blacks or Latinos, and about half included pat-downs. The New York Civil Liberties Union says these stops have septupled since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002.