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Mayor de Blasio Scales Back NYC Marijuana Arrests


Under considerable pressure from scientists and civil rights groups, Mayor Bill de Blasio instructed the NYPD to greatly reduce the number of marijuana arrests in the city.

Effective September 1, officers will no longer arrest most people for smoking marijuana in public. Instead, these individuals will receive a criminal summons, which is basically like a traffic ticket. There are a number of exceptions. For example, people who are on probation, have an unrelated arrest warrant, or cannot produce ID are still subject to arrest. Currently, NYPD officers arrest about 17,000 people a year on such charges. The mayor estimated that the new policy would eliminate about 10,000 of these arrests.

Criminologists have long contended that low-level marijuana arrests serve little purpose when it comes to combating serious crime. Moreover, in the first four months of 2018, about 80 percent of low-level marijuana possession arrestees have been black or Latino.

Legal Issues Regarding Marijuana Possession in New York

New York voters may soon decide on an even broader proposal which applies to most personal marijuana use. If it follows the pattern set in other states, such a measure would not “legalize” marijuana. However, it would eliminate the possibility of criminal charges for people who have less than a few dozen joints, or the makings of a few dozen joints.

There is already a limited amnesty program in place for such offenses. In fact, even people charged with felony possession of marijuana may be eligible for deferred adjudication. The exact procedure varies in different New York jurisdictions. Typically, however, the defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the charges. The judge accepts the plea, but does not enter a finding of guilt.

Instead, the judge places the defendant on probation. Deferred adjudication probation usually has the same conditions as regular probation. Defendants must normally pay fines, report to probation officers, and so on. If the defendant completes probation, the judge does not enter a finding of guilt. Instead, the prosecutor dismisses the charges.

So, the deferred adjudication defendant has no conviction record. The arrest record remains, and in New York, it’s very difficult to expunge such records. If the record comes up again, perhaps in a job interview, it is usually easy to defuse the situation. Saying something like “I hired a lawyer and the lawyer took care of it” usually ends such inquiries.

There may be some other fallout. For example, if you are not a citizen, a deferred adjudication disposition may still count as a conviction under immigration law. So, carefully go over all the pros and cons with your attorney before you make a decision.

Issues in New York Marijuana Possession Prosecutions

The New York City proclamation only applies to smoking marijuana in public. Many other such arrests occur in cars and homes. If officers find marijuana anywhere in a car, they usually arrest all the occupants.

Such dragnet proceedings are often tough to prove in court. Proximity alone is not sufficient evidence of possession. In addition, the prosecutor must also prove:

  • Accessibility: The defendant must have ready access to the drugs or other contraband. That’s not possible if the drugs were in a locked glovebox or some other separate container. That’s also not possible if the defendant was in the front seat and the drugs were not in the passenger area.
  • Specific Knowledge: The defendant must also know the specific nature of the contraband. If the charging instruments allege possession of marijuana, the defendant must know that there was marijuana in the bag. Simply knowing that “something illegal” was in the bag is probably not sufficient.

In a criminal case, the New York prosecutor must establish each element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.



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