By Jennifer Peltz
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW YORK _ Thousands of people carrying small amounts of marijuana may no longer be arrested or face criminal charges under a policy city officials announced Monday, marking a significant shift in how America’s biggest city approaches policing pot.
Instead of being arrested on misdemeanour charges that carry potential punishments of up to three months in jail, many people will get court summonses and face non-criminal violations punishable by fines starting at $100, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton said.
While state law makes it a misdemeanour to have up to 25 grams _ about a sandwich bag _ of marijuana in “public view,” the mayor characterized stopping such arrests as an enforcement choice that would give police officers time to pursue more serious crime and spare people from the consequences of arrest records for cases that often end up getting dismissed.
It’s “a smart policy that keeps New Yorkers safe, but it is also a more fair policy,” said de Blasio, a first-term Democrat who has faced pressure to keep campaign promises to reduce the more than 20,000 such arrests per year.
The announcement comes a week after voters in Washington, and in Oregon and Alaska approved measures legalizing marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington states.
City lawmakers, some district attorneys and civil rights advocates including the Rev. Al Sharpton hailed the change. But the city’s biggest police union said the change could tie officers’ hands.
Under a 1977 state law, it’s only a violation to have up to 25 grams of marijuana in a pocket or bag, but the offence rises to a misdemeanour if the pot is being smoked or is “open to public view.”
Under the new policy, set to take effect Nov. 19, people caught smoking will still be arrested, as will people with open warrants or no identification. Police couldn’t provide an estimate of how many arrests wouldn’t happen under the new approach.
The arrests averaged about 2,100 a year from 1978 through 1995 and then shot up, peaking at 50,700 in 2011. Amid scrutiny of police tactics and some policy changes, they fell to 28,600 last year. There have been 24,080 this year.
Critics say the arrests are racially disproportionate: Federal statistics show similar rates of marijuana usage among whites, blacks and Hispanics, but about 86 per cent of the New York arrestees are black or Hispanic. Critics also say the sheer number of arrests suggests police are bending the dividing line of “public view.” They say police illegally search people or get them to empty their pockets to bring the drug into the open and generate arrests. Officers were reminded in 2011 that they couldn’t do that.