The NYPD's policy of severely tamping down on minor offenses means that many New Yorkers (mostly young men of color) end up in jail because they didn't pay a small fine or show up in court. Some City Councilmembers, including the Speaker, want to make those offenses civil, not criminal—could this be the shift that breaks Broken Windows?
Currently, having an open container of alcohol, biking on the sidewalk, public urination, being in a park after hours, failing to obey a park sign, littering, and making unreasonable noise are all violations that fall under criminal court jurisdiction. If you fail to pay a small fine or don't show up in court to contest the charges, a judge can issue a warrant for your arrest. Even if you pay the fine, you're pleading guilty to a criminal offense, a blemish on your record.
The Daily News reports that the Speaker and other councilmembers are seeking to amend the City's code so that all those offenses are civil. Fines would still be handed out by the NYPD, but no arrest warrants would be issued, and these minor offenses would no longer trigger criminal court appearances and the record that comes with it.
“All the consequences of the criminal justice system would be removed and people would just be civilly responsible for their conduct,” Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman, who sits on the council's Criminal Justice Committee, told the News. "It would be akin to a parking ticket, which I think would be more than enough to deter people from committing that kind of conduct without bringing the heavy hammer of the criminal justice system down on their head.”
The councilmembers also want the NYPD to stop arresting turnstile jumpers, and instead write them civil infractions that would be adjudicated by the MTA (farebeaters carrying weapons and drugs would obviously be subject to criminal charges).
Close to half of all criminal summonses are dismissed (similarly, 38% of all misdemeanor charges are dismissed).
The seven offenses under the proposal account for 42% (2.7 million) of all criminal summonses issued by the NYPD every year; the most common being open container (public urination and biking on the sidewalk are third and fourth on the list).
Half of all New Yorkers who receive criminal summonses don't show up in court, and a quarter who are fined when they do don't pay it.
NYPD Commissioner Bratton told the City Council in March that he doesn't support the idea: "I’m not supportive of the idea of civil summonses for these offenses because I think that they’d be basically totally ignored, that they don’t have any bite to them, if you will."
Failure to pay a civil summons could eventually result in the City obtaining a civil judgement against the offender, garnishing their wages and damaging their credit. Some minor criminal cases, such as for disorderly conduct, are resolved with a judge levying a civil fine against the defendant, though it's unclear how much of that money the City is able to collect. It's also worth noting that defendants do not have a right to council in civil proceedings.
The NYPD currently has discretion to write civil summonses (on yellow paper) for some minor offenses, like biking on the sidewalk or spitting. But the vast majority of police choose to impose criminal (pink) summonses instead.
A spokeswoman for Councilmember Lancman's office told us that the plan would remove that discretion and make all the offenses civil.
A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office told the News that de Blasio "has made a clear commitment to reforming the summons process, and the speaker’s proposal is under review in consultation with NYPD."