Brooklyn Daily Eagle: In low-level marijuana cases, prosecutions down but racial disparities up

Prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession are way down in Brooklyn in the first four months of 2019, compared to a year ago. AP Photo/Josh Edelson.

Prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession are way down in Brooklyn in the first four months of 2019, compared to a year ago. AP Photo/Josh Edelson.

Noah Goldberg
May 10, 2019

Low-level marijuana prosecutions are way down in Brooklyn compared to last year, but massive racial disparities in arrests for the charges persist citywide, according to data from The Legal Aid Society and The Police Reform Organizing Project.

Overall, low-level marijuana possession arrest numbers have been significantly down to start 2019 due to the NYPD’s 2018 policy of giving out summonses instead of arrests in most cases involving smoking in public. Despite the lower arrest numbers, black and hispanic New Yorkers were still arrested at disproportionately high rates for low-level possession throughout the city, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, provided by the NYPD.

In the first three months of 2019, 294 black people and 147 hispanic people were arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree, making up 93 percent of arrests on the charge. Last year – during the same period – 2,006 black people were arrested for the charge. Despite the massive reduction in number of arrests, black people made up a higher percentage of the arrests for the charge in the first three months of 2019 – from 49 percent in 2018 to 62 percent in 2019.

Meanwhile, just 20 white people were arrested citywide in the first three months of 2019 for fifth-degree marijuana possession, which is charged for smoking in a public place or possessing more than 25 grams of marijuana. White people made up just 4.2 percent of people arrested, down from seven percent in the same period last year.

The Legal Aid Society, which provides counsel to about half of the city’s population living under the poverty line, only represented 63 defendants for unlawful possession of marijuana in the fourth and fifth degree in Brooklyn between January and April, compared to 828 during the same period in 2018, according to the organization’s statistics. Prosecutions for marijuana possession are down in all five boroughs compared to the first four months of last year.

A spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez cited the office’s 2018 policy of only prosecuting low-level marijuana cases when people pose a threat to public safety — by driving with burning marijuana in the car or creating a public nuisance by smoking on public transportation or in a schoolyard – for the drastic reduction in prosecutions.

“This helps the communities from not being subjected to over-criminalization for marijuana possession,” Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at Legal Aid, said of the steep decline in prosecutions of low-level marijuana possession in Brooklyn. “It also helps the NYPD that is looking to build itself as a place where people can trust them and what they do.”

Legal Aid Clients Charged with Unlawful, Fourth- and Fifth-Degree Marijuana Possession

The data represents cases where the top charge was fourth degree, fifth degree or unlawful marijuana possession, The Legal Aid Society said.

“The decrease in prosecutions for low-level marijuana possession is a significant improvement from last year, however, until marijuana is legal, the NYPD will continue to use marijuana as a pretext to stop, frisk, and arrest Black and Latinx people at a disproportionate rate,” Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services told the Brooklyn Eagle in a statement.

In its own data shared with the Eagle, Brooklyn Defender Services said they represented 24 people charged with fifth-degree marijuana possession in the first four months of 2019, as opposed to 379 in the same period in 2018.

For fourth-degree marijuana possession – which is charged when someone possesses between two and eight ounces of the drug – Brooklyn Defender Services actually represented more defendants between January and April in 2019 than the year before.

The group represented 16 people in the first four months of 2019 and only nine in the same time last year for fourth-degree marijuana possession.

NY Daily News: Trump administration admits 55,000 kids could be displaced under plan to evict undocumented immigrants

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson watches a video presentation at the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), Thursday Feb. 14 in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson watches a video presentation at the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), Thursday Feb. 14 in Philadelphia. (Jacqueline Larma/AP)

By Chris Sommerfeldt
May 10, 2019

Thousands of children with legal immigration status could end up homeless because of a controversial Trump administration plan to purge undocumented immigrants from public housing complexes across the country, federal housing officials said Friday.

An internal analysis by the Housing and Urban Development agency found that roughly 108,000 people would be affected by a rule change floated by the administration to bar families who have any undocumented members from being eligible for federally subsidized housing.

But about 70% of the people in the impacted households have legal immigration status — and 55,000 of them are children, according to HUD.

Those kids — a majority of whom live in New York, California and Texas — could be displaced and forced into homelessness if the rule is implemented, as families with one or more undocumented members are likely to vacate their units out of “fear,” HUD says.

“HUD expects that fear of the family being separated would lead to prompt evacuation by most mixed households,” the analysis states. “Temporary homelessness could arise for a household, if they are unable to find alternative housing.”

Under current rules, undocumented immigrants are eligible for subsidized housing as long as one of their family members have legal status, such as a child born in the U.S. or a spouse with American citizenship.

The rule change, part of a legacy pushed by President Trump’s far-right senior adviser Stephen Miller, would do away with that exception and require all family members to have “eligible immigration status," according to the proposal entered into the Federal Register by HUD Secretary Ben Carson on Friday.

The White House declined to comment.

In a statement, Carson argued the new rule will make sure American citizens are first in line for federal housing benefits.

“There is an affordable housing crisis in this country, and we need to make certain our scarce public resources help those who are legally entitled to it,” Carson said. "Given the overwhelming demand for our programs, fairness requires that we devote ourselves to legal residents who have been waiting, some for many years, for access to affordable housing.”

Mayor de Blasio promised to fight the measure.

“President Trump wants us to evict our neighbors and call it ‘immigration reform,’” Freddi Goldstein, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said. "Not in New York City. We’ll do all we can to fight this because we know our diversity is our greatest strength.”

Immigration advocates ripped Carson’s argument as flawed, considering most of the people HUD would be evicting have legal status. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed steep cuts to federal housing budgets.

“This is a cold-hearted attack," said Javier Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York. “As HUD’s own internal analysis reveals, this new proposal from the Trump administration will only worsen the housing crisis we currently face in states like New York, by driving families, including many US-citizen children, out of their homes and onto the streets. Our community is deeply opposed to this reckless and mean-spirited federal proposal.”

The rule change will undergo a 60-day public comment period before taking effect.

Patch: NYers Jailed For Hours After Paying Bail Despite Law, Report Says

The Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on Jan. 5, 2018. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The Rikers Island jail complex stands under a blanket of snow on Jan. 5, 2018. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

By Noah Manskar
May 10, 2019

People in New York City jails are often kept behind bars for hours after they pay bail despite a law requiring their prompt release, advocates said in a report released Friday.

The City Council passed a law in 2017 requiring the Department of Correction to release most detainees within three hours after they post bail. But the DOC often blows that deadline, which took effect in October 2018, according to the report from the Legal Aid Society and the Bronx Freedom Fund.

The organizations' 27 clients who were bailed out last month in The Bronx and Queens waited an average of six hours and 52 minutes before they got out, the report says. Only two were released on time and five had to spend another night in behind bars before they were freed, advocates say.

"DOC is not above the law, and our clients continue to suffer wrongful incarceration at Rikers Island and other facilities – some of the most dangerous jails in the country – because of the Department's bureaucratic bumbling," said Elizabeth Bender, a staff attorney with Legal Aid's Decarceration Project, in a statement.

The DOC has consistently struggled with the release deadlines since the city law first took effect in October 2017, the report shows.

Only 23 percent of Freedom Fund clients were freed within the initial five-hour time limit from January through March of last year, while 24 percent were released on time from April through September, when the window was four hours, the report says.

From October 2018 through last month, only 10 percent of clients were released within the three-hour limit, according to the report. And it took the DOC an average of eight hours and 11 minutes to free people after they paid bail in that period, advocates say.

One client last month was released into freezing temperatures at 1 a.m. — and the delay cost him his job and his bed in the shelter where he was living, the report says.

The DOC says it has to complete a lengthy and careful process before it can release detainees. Department staff have to complete 15 steps twice before releasing someone, including a check for warrants and an interview with the person who is in custody, according to the department.

The law also contains several exceptions to the three-hour deadline, the DOC says, such as cases in which someone has a warrant from another agency or needs immediate mental-health or medical treatment.

"We don't want people staying in our jails any longer than necessary. We want people who pay bail back home with their families and at their jobs," DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten said in a statement. "We've done a lot to make paying bail easier, and we are working hard to safely speed up the discharge process."

Queens Daily Eagle: NYC jails violate city law by holding people hours after posting bail, report finds

EAGLE  FILE PHOTO BY DAVID BRAND

EAGLE FILE PHOTO BY DAVID BRAND

By David Brand
May 10, 2019

The New York City Department of Corrections routinely fails to release people who post bail within a three-hour window mandated by city law, according to a report published Friday by two justice reform organizations.

The Bronx Freedom Fund and The Legal Aid Society audited their Queens and Bronx client’s release times after posting bail in April and found that their clients waited an average of six hours and 52 minutes — more than twice the period mandated by law — before they were released after posting bail. More than 92 percent of clients waited more than three hours before they were released.

A package of bail reform legislation enacted by the city in 2017 included a law mandating that the DOC release detained individuals who make bail within three hours, starting in October 2018. The law initially established a five-hour window and gradually decreased to four hours, then three hours in most circumstances.

The Bronx Freedom Fund, which posts bail for low-income defendants in city jails, says fewer than a quarter of its clients have been released within the mandated time period since the law took effect.

Last month, 27 Legal Aid and Bronx Freedom Fund clients from Queens and the Bronx were bailed out of city jails, but only two were released within three hours, the organizations found in their report.

Nine of the remaining 25 individuals were held for more than 7 hours after making bail, three were released more than 10 hours after making bail and one was held for more than 17 hours, according to the report. Five people were detained overnight after they posted bail.

“It's been seven months since this law was supposed to be fully implemented and almost two years since its passage. It is inexcusable that the Department of Correction has yet to comply,” said Bronx Freedom Fund Director Elena Weissmann. “As a result, every week, hundreds of low-income New Yorkers remain incarcerated for hours beyond the legal limit even after their bail has already been posted.”

The report quotes one individual who said he was held overnight and ended up losing his job and spot in a shelter. The Bronx Freedom Fund and Legal Aid said they will continue to release monthly reports on bail release time to ensure DOC complies with city law.

“Our clients continue to suffer wrongful incarceration at Rikers Island and other facilities — some of the most dangerous jails in the country — because of the Department’s bureaucratic bumbling,” said Elizabeth Bender, staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Decarceration Project. “If Mayor Bill de Blasio is serious about fast-tracking the closure of Rikers Island, this starts with reducing the jail’s pretrial detention population.”

DOC acknowledged the delays in releasing defendants, and said that the process takes time because staff look up warrants and other court-related documents and offer discharge and reentry services.

“We don’t want people staying in our jails any longer than necessary. We want people who pay bail back home with their families and at their jobs,” said DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten. “We’ve done a lot to make paying bail easier, and we are working hard to safely speed up the discharge process.”

The city law outlines some exceptions to the three-hour window, including time concessions for discharge planning, whether a person needs medical attention and whether the person is being transported to or from a jail or courthouse at the time their bail is posted.

In March, the City Council released a report criticizing the bail system and the DOC for holding defendants for excessive periods of time.

“Any amount of time a presumptively innocent individual needlessly spends in jail is too much time,” the Council report said. “Every extra hour that an individual spends detained keeps him or her away from family, work, and community.

That report, based on an examination by the Council’s Oversight and Investigations Unit in January and February, specifically found that DOC does not accept cash bail payments “immediately and continuously” after a person is detained, another portion of the city law. The DOC is supposed to accept bail 24 hours a day inside courthouses, designated sites within a half mile from courthouses or online.

In practice, that is not happening, the Council report concluded.

“Further, DOC is not releasing inmates within three hours after they have paid bail,” the Council report stated. “DOC’s policies and practices have created a system in which even an individual who is able to pay bail faces obstacles and challenges at every stage in order to do so.”

WNYC: Men Caught in NYPD Dragnet Say They Feel Targeted, Harassed

Men who had swabs collected by the NYPD during an investigation into the killer of a Howard Beach jogger are speaking up about their experiences.

Following the murder of Karina Vetrano, police launched an intensive investigation. Six months later, 22-year-old Chanel Lewis arrested. He has since been to life in prison without parole.

But a new report by the New York Daily News shows that during the search, a top police official ordered a mass DNA swabbing campaign of 360 black and Hispanic men who had been arrested at some point near the neighborhood.

Reporter Graham Rayman received a list of 50 men included in the roundup. He says only three had been arrested for violent crimes.

"In many cases," he said, "[they] had been previously arrested for misdemeanors, driving without a license, lower level things, lower level possession of drugs. And one of them was arrested on a violation, which isn't even a crime."

He spoke with WNYC's Kerry Nolan.

The Grio: In search for killer, NYPD demanded DNA swabs from hundreds of Black and Latino men

New York City Police gather at an active crime scene on 32nd Street (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

New York City Police gather at an active crime scene on 32nd Street (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Melanie Eversley
May 10, 2019

During the investigation into the 2016 murder of Queens, N.Y., jogger Karina Vetrano, New York City police detectives rounded up hundreds of Black and Latino men and demanded their DNA, according to a report in the New York Daily News.

The revelation is the latest turn in numerous developments that have raised questions in the case, that ended with the sentencing last month of Chanel Lewis, a 22-year-old Black man, to life without parole. An earlier trial ended in a hung jury, and in the days leading up to the sentencing, issues of potential juror misconduct emerged, though they were ultimately rejected by the judge.

Vetrano’s body was found in a park in the Howard Beach neighborhood in August 2016, raped and beaten.

According to the Daily News, police went on an intense manhunt after the jogger’s death and demanded 360 DNA swabs from Black and Latino men who’s previously been arrested in Howard Beach. In some cases, they stopped repeatedly at subjects’ homes. In one case, one man’s parents became so rattled by the repeated visits by the NYPD that they picked up and moved to Westchester County, in suburban New York, according to the newspaper.

The campaign began after DNA found at the death scene turned out to be that of a Black man, sources told the News. The NYPD then set about rounding up men who’d been arrested in the Howard Beach neighborhood for anything, including shoplifting, driving without a license or low-level drug possession, the Daily News reported.

“This DNA dragnet of Black and brown New Yorkers brings the NYPD’s racially biased policing to a new low,” Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society, told the Daily News. “The police aggressively collect DNA from New Yorkers using a variety of racially biased and sometimes secretive means. These tactics are fundamentally inconsistent with the fair policing that our city lawmakers claim to support and only serves to sow more distrust of the police without any significant law enforcement purpose.”

The Legal Aid Society is appealing Lewis’ conviction.

NYPD spokesman Phillip Walzak declined to comment on the DNA swab campaign because the murder case is subject to appeal. He did, however, say that DNA can be used to rule out the innocent.

“The local database has generated 1,400 DNA matches alone for heinous crimes like murder and rape — serious criminals who might not have otherwise been taken off New York City streets were it not for the evidence in the DNA database,” the Daily News reported Walzak said in a statement. “Importantly, the NYPD gathers DNA lawfully and in accordance with strict protocols.”

The Root: NYPD Detectives Racially Profiled Over 360 Black and Latino Men While Searching for Howard Beach Killer

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Aliya Semper Ewing
May 10, 2019

Just two weeks after Chanel Lewis, 22, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for killing Howard Beach jogger Karina Vetrano, shocking new details have emerged about the initial manhunt that left black and Latino men stripped of dignity, if not also their rights.

According to the Daily News, in the months after Vetrano’s sexual assault and murder, law enforcement had no leads on a suspect other than a DNA test showing a black male as the culprit. Based on this, then-Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce demanded DNA swabs from over 360 black and Latino men simply because they had been previously arrested in Queens, N.Y. There appears to be no cohesive reason as to why these men were named on a list of potential suspects other than their race and having been previously arrested in Howard Beach. The majority had been arrested for non-violent crimes including misdemeanors such as shoplifting or low-level drug possession. There was also no pattern to the men’s ages, which widely ranged from early 20s to mid-60s.

The News learned of this biased swabbing campaign from an anonymous letter that included a list of 50 of the profiled men and their photos taken off a police database. Only three of those 50 men who’d been swabbed were previously arrested for violent crime. Legal experts say this act likely violated the civil rights of the men and is a calling card of the NYPD’s “racially biased” policing tactics.

The mandatory swabbing was not simply an inconvenience on the path to proving innocence; it was dehumanizing, and in some cases caused emotional distress and reputation damage. One man told the Daily News his parents were so deeply disturbed by repeated visits from detectives that they sold their house and moved to Westchester County. Another man said he was embarrassed and stigmatized after his neighbors saw detectives questioning him at his door.

Terri Rosenblatt, supervising attorney of the DNA Unit at the Legal Aid Society tells the Daily News:

“This DNA dragnet of black and brown New Yorkers brings the NYPD’s racially biased policing to a new low. The police aggressively collect DNA from New Yorkers using a variety of racially biased and sometimes secretive means. These tactics are fundamentally inconsistent with the fair policing that our city lawmakers claim to support and only serves to sow more distrust of the police without any significant law enforcement purpose.”

It’s important to note that while the swabbing request was technically voluntary, power dynamics combined with fear from those unfamiliar with their rights put these men in a troubling situation, often feeling they must comply or face worse consequences. Civil rights lawyer Joel Berger detailed:

“‘Consent’ rarely is voluntary. The law is clear that a waiver of one’s right must be “knowing and intelligent,” and that must include awareness that one has the right to refuse. Police illegally put pressure on people to ‘consent’ in various ways such as claiming that they can arrest or return speedily with a warrant, or threatening other consequences.”

Phillip Walzak, a police spokesman, declined to comment to The Daily News about the swabbing practice, as did former Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.

However, Michael Palladino, head of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, claims the DNA swabs were justified by the facts of the case.

“I don’t see it as an issue of race,” he said to The News. “It’s really about following up on the evidence left at the scene. In this case the DNA recovered at the scene indicated the killer was black so our detectives requested samples from people consistent with the evidence.”

Clearly, Palladino believes that the heinous acts of one black man makes all black men suspect regardless of disposition, history, age, location, alibi, or any other differentiating detail.

Maurice Sylla, 56, was one of the men asked to be swabbed. Sylla was “consistent with the evidence” of being a rapist and murder as Palladino claims, because in 2014 he was arrested for driving without a license.

“Because I had a fender-bender a mile away from the murder scene, they profiled me,” he said. Not only was he profiled, Sylla claims that detectives interrogated and terrified his teenaged niece after they mistakenly went to his sister’s home in search of him.

But he didn’t cave into the intense police pressure.

Instead, Maurice Sylla called the 106th Precinct and demanded to speak to the officer in command. When a sergeant ignored Sylla’s request and refused to connect him, Sylla told them he’d call Internal Affairs and the Civilian Complaint Review Board if they didn’t leave him alone and stop harassing his family.

“They left me alone after that,” Sylla said. “They realized I would be their worst nightmare because I know my rights.”

Crain’s: Face-off on Rent Regulation

MAIN-Inwood housing NYC2_Buck Ennis_i.jpg

Landlords of the city's roughly 900,000 rent-regulated apartments insist they are due a big rent increase after years of paltry gains. Tenant advocates say rents should be frozen.

Last week the Rent Guidelines Board made a preliminary decision to raise rents between 0.5% and 2.75% for one-year leases and 1.5% and 3.75% for two-year leases. A final vote is slated for June 25.

"The RGB and City Hall are playing Russian roulette with the economic health of the city's aging affordable-housing stock," said Joseph Strasburg, president of the Rent Stabilization Association, which represents landlords of rent-regulated housing.

Legal Aid Society attorney Adriene Holder countered: "While we are in the midst of an affordable-housing shortage and burgeoning homelessness crisis, it is mystifying that the board voted to raise rents."

Last year landlords were granted 1.5% and 2.5% annual increases for one- and two-year leases, respectively, slightly more than in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, no increases were permitted for one-year leases, and two-year leases got a 2% bump. In 2014 the increases were 1% and 2.75%.

The RSA estimates landlords' costs have risen 21% in the past five years. Strasburg accused the mayorally appointed board of hewing to Mayor Bill de Blasio's signature initiative to mitigate inequality. "The RGB has deliberately ignored its own data," Strasburg said, "which makes it abundantly clear that the RGB is taking its orders from the city administration, rather than acting independently … as it's mandated to do."

But Holder said the board's data show landlords' profits have increased every year for 13 consecutive years.

Statement on Start of Administrative Trial Against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo

Cynthia Conti-Cook, Staff Attorney with the Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement on the start of New York City Police Department (NYPD) Daniel Pantaleo’s administrative trial for the killing of Eric Garner:

“When Mr. Garner was choked to death by Daniel Pantaleo, in front of all our eyes and despite his many cries for help, we expected that the officer would, at the very least, immediately lose his job, if not face criminal charges for his actions. Instead, he has gained a pension, earned thousands of dollars in overtime, and still works for the NYPD.

The Legal Aid Society has fought for more transparency around the NYPD and the Staten Island District Attorney’s failure to hold Pantaleo accountable despite City Hall’s continued political protection of both.

We hope that a decision is swift and conclusive, and finally terminates Officer Pantaleo from the Department. The Garner family and New Yorkers of color who have long suffered police brutality deserve this justice.”

Queens Daily Eagle: Queens leads city in marijuana cases, public defender data finds

The nypd began to shift from arrests to issuing criminal summonses for public marijuana smoking on Sept. 1, 2018.

The nypd began to shift from arrests to issuing criminal summonses for public marijuana smoking on Sept. 1, 2018.

By David Brand
May 10, 2019

Queens leads the five boroughs in low-level marijuana possession cases — misdemeanor charges that have drastically decreased in volume under new NYPD protocols but are still marked by stunning racial disparities.

The number of unlawful, fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession cases have dropped significantly in Queens this year, but the borough accounts for more low-level weed prosecutions than Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island combined, according to client data compiled by The Legal Aid Society, which represents about half the indigent defendants in New York City.

And while low-level marijuana arrests have decreased by more than 88 percent citywide, racial disparities in who gets busted for weed possession have actually gotten worse.

In fact, nearly every single person busted for low-level weed possession in New York City was Black or Latinx during the first three months of this year, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which was provided by the NYPD. Of the 476 people arrested for fifth-degree marijuana possession citywide, just 20 were white, according to the data set. The other 456 people arrested — more than 95 percent — were people of color.

People of color accounted for 93 percent of the 4,081 people arrested for fifth-degree marijuana possession during the first three months of 2018. Fifth-degree marijuana possession includes smoking in public or possessing more than 25 grams of marijuana.

“Even though arrests are down, the racial disparities are increasing. And they’re meaningful. You can see who they are targeting for sale and possession,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, which obtained and shared the data from the state.

Queens leads in weed busts

Legal Aid clients in Queens accounted for 141 of the defendants charged with low-level weed possession in the city during the first three months of the year. Legal Aid also represented another 46 clients charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession in Queens in April, for a total of 187 clients in the first four months of the year.

Data courtesy of The Legal Aid Society DATA COURTESY OF THE LEGAL AID SOCIETY

That marks a roughly 63 percent decrease compared to the 504 people busted for marijuana possession in the same time period last year, but Queens still leads among the five boroughs.

Legal Aid attorneys in Brooklyn represented 62 clients, and in Manhattan 63 clients, charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession, while their attorneys in Staten Island represented 56 clients charged with low-level marijuana possession in the first four months of the year.

That is 171 total clients across those three boroughs, 16 fewer than in Queens alone.

Only the Bronx comes close to Queens in terms of weed possession charges this year. Legal Aid attorneys represented 141 clients charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession in the Bronx in the first four months of 2019, compared to 628 last year.

Questionable impact, disparate application

All seven Democratic candidates for Queens DA have pledged not to prosecute low-level marijuana possession, which could discourage police in Queens from making arrests for weed.

DAs in Manhattan and Brooklyn have already directed their assistants not to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses in most cases, though the data demonstrates that such prosecutions continue.

Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at Legal Aid, said the continued arrests and prosecutions fail to serve a public safety interest and continue to punish communities of color, despite efforts to decriminalize.

“Decriminalization is not that answer. It fails to address the past harms of criminalization, and our clients will continue to be targets,” Posada said. “Tinkering around the edges is insufficient and the only solution to this disparity is full legalization and Albany must act to repeal the law this session.”

Gangi, from PROP, said decriminalization has worked — for wealthy, white New Yorkers.

“I live in a fairly prosperous area in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and smell marijuana frequently. For them it has really been decriminalized and they have no expectation of their smoking being interrupted by a police officer,” Gangi said. “You’ve already effectively decriminalized it for white people. Decriminalize it for all people.”

The Queens DA’s Office did not immediately provide a response for this story, but in the past the office has commented.

“We will evaluate the arrests made by the NYPD and will proceed with valid cases — the vast majority of which are eligible for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” a spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office told the Eagle in August 2018, after Manhattan DA Cy Vance announced he would not prosecute low-level marijuana offenses. “We will continue to offer dispositions that are appropriate.”

In an interview with the Eagle last month, Senior Executive Assistant DA James Quinn said the majority of people charged with misdemeanors, including marijuana-related offenses, are released without a judge setting bail. In most cases, defendants plead guilty and are issued a fine.

Indeed, PROP’s court monitoring volunteers have not reported seeing a person jailed after pleading guilty for low-level marijuana possession, Gangi said. Nevertheless, the arrest can still be traumatizing and the charge disruptive, he said.

“The suggestion from what the DAs are saying is, ‘So what, the cops are arresting you,’” he said. “Well, that’s a big f---ing deal. The cops are arresting you, putting you in the patrol car, bringing you to the precinct, locking you up and holding you for the day.”

“Or they give you a desk appearance ticket and you have to return to the arraignment part and you have an open case hanging over you,” he continued.