Yesterday, reviewing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record on civil liberties, I noted that he has presided over an unannounced crusade against pot smokers, featuring illegal "public display" arrests of people whose marijuana became visible only because of police intervention. Today Bloomberg announced during his State of the City address that people caught with small amounts of pot will no longer go directly to jail:
We know that there's more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record. Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it this year. But we won't wait for that to happen.
Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We're changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It's consistent with the law, it's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most.
Pot smokers will still be arrested, however, and they will still face misdemeanor charges, which means "ending up with a criminal record" if they are convicted. Furthermore, Bloomberg rather alarmingly misstates the current legal status of possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana. It is already a violation, punishable by a $100 fine, and has been since 1977. The misdemeanor is possessing marijuana "in public view," which is punishable by up to three months in jail. The problem is that New York cops routinely convert the former offense into the latter by removing marijuana or instructing people to empty their pockets during stop-and-frisk encounters. That sort of trickery, which is what leads to arrests for something the state legislature decriminalized 26 years ago, is illegal, as Police Commissioner Ray Kelly himself has acknowledged (although he questions how often it occurs). While Bloomberg endorsed legislation decriminalizing public display of marijuana after Gov. Andrew Cuomo took on the issue last year, he has never acknowledged that police are illegally manufacturing misdemeanors, and he is still allowing such abuses to continue, even as he concedes the stupidity of treating pot smokers like criminals.
Addendum: Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, whose research brought to light the surge in pot busts under Bloomberg, comments:
Issuance of a desk appearance ticket involves a full custodial arrest, handcuffs, and a ride back to the police station in a squad car, van or wagon. Sometimes the person is driven around for hours while the officers look for others to arrest.
At the police station the person arrested is fingerprinted and photographed and is locked up in the precinct's own holding pens, which hold often scary people who have been arrested for various crimes. The person's fingerprints are sent to the state and then to the FBI to be cross checked for warrants, as well as check for local NYC warrants. The most common warrant to come up is not for a crime but for having failed to pay the fine for a violation such as having an open beer can in public, riding a bike on the sidewalk, or sitting on a park bench after hours. The NYPD gives out 600,000 of these summons a year, primarily in the city's black and Latino neighborhoods and precincts.
Ironically, people with no warrants, and who have never been arrested before, are often held longer than those with previous arrests because it takes longer to check the fingerprints and photographs of those without criminal records. The person arrested is held for two hours or more and then released with the mandatory court appearance ticket (DAT).
The obvious question is: why are these people being arrested and detained at all? They could be given summonses on the street charging them with possession of small amounts of marijuana, This would save far more police time and public resources, and save the young people targeted from a stigmatizing criminal arrest record for drug possession.