New York City

New York City to Dismiss Hundreds of Thousands of Old Warrants for Minor Crimes

Should we credit the crackdown on immigration enforcement?


warrant chart
Manhattan D.A.'s Office

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio may continue to defend "broken windows policing," but prosecutors in his town are increasingly ill at ease with the long-term consequences when police constantly cite citizens for low-level, nonviolent crimes.

This week, prosecutors from Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens announced they were moving to dismiss nearly 650,000 old warrants for unpaid citations from things like public drinking to violating park rules. According to The New York Times, prosecutors have been hammering out this plan for three years.

Surprisingly, de Blasio supports the district attorneys' decision, even though he continues to defend the police practice of issuing citations no matter how small the infraction. But that may be explained by the fact that all of these warrants are at least a decade old. Either the people involved aren't around anymore, or they aren't going to pay the money anyway, or 450 or so reckless spitters have failed to induce apocalyptic anarchy in the Big Apple.

Even though there's no push to go back and track these thousands of people down, there are still potential consequences of having an active warrant out when a citizen ends up interacting with police. Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez worried about people getting dragged into a jail and booked for an old citation worth $25.

While this has been in the works for years, the officials are also clearly concerned about President Donald Trump's efforts to increase immigration enforcement and push out illegal immigrants. These citations are used as justifications to round up and deport people here illegally if they get they get detained for these warrants. Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance Jr. noted the consequences of these warrants remaining active, the Times reports:

"New Yorkers with 10-year-old summons warrants face unnecessary unemployment risk, housing and immigration consequences," Mr. Vance told Criminal Court Judge Tamiko A. Amaker in Manhattan. "And because they fear they will be arrested for the old infraction, they often don't collaborate with law enforcement."

New York can't run afoul of Trump's war on sanctuary cities if they don't go around citing and arresting immigrants, can they? Criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing cities to reconsider low-level enforcement practices for this very reason. Every encounter between a police officer and an immigrant now includes additional risks.

In June Vance announced a concerted effort to reduce low-level criminal prosecutions of minor crimes in Manhattan by 20,000 a year, declining to prosecute subway turnstile jumpers (unless they present some other public safety threat) and focusing on early diversion programs for first-time arrestees for low-level crimes. It's a shame, though, that nobody seems to be interested in considering whether they should wipe some of these laws themselves off the books.

I should note that Staten Island's district attorney declined to join the effort. Offering amnesty for these citations, even though they're a decade old, "sends the wrong message about the importance of respecting our community and our laws," he said in a statement. If you once walked around with an unleashed dog, you'll get no mercy from him.