More than 3,000 people with outstanding warrants in Manhattan for low-level marijuana offenses are having their cases dropped. Judge Kevin McGrath on Wednesday approved a motion filed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to vacate those warrants and dismiss the underlying misdemeanors and violations.
This is the latest move in a widespread effort to increase leniency in New York City’s marijuana enforcement. In August, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses related to possession and smoking. At the beginning of September, the NYPD also changed its policy related to arresting people for marijuana offenses. With some exceptions, officers are now instructed to issue summonses for public smoking or marijuana possession, rather than making arrests.
Here's WNYC's Mara Silvers report on D.A. Vance's decision:
In his statement before the judge, District Attorney Cyrus Vance said this motion reflected a change in policy from his office, and “common sense” reevaluation of marijuana enforcement.
Vance said his office searched through all relevant cases available dating back to 1978, pulling ones where the only remaining charge was misdemeanor marijuana possession or pot smoking.
“Outstanding warrants for these low-level cases drive law enforcement and communities apart,” Vance said, adding that warrants create difficulties related to employment, housing, and immigration status.
“By dismissing these cases, we’re removing all of the collateral consequences… associated with an open Criminal Court case,” Vance said.
Dismissing the warrants also helps address decades of racial disparity in marijuana enforcement, said Vance. Nearly 80 percent of the New Yorkers who will have their warrants waived are people of color, according to the DA’s office. Almost half of the people whose cases have been dismissed were 25 or younger at the time of their arrest.
Vance’s motion does not, however, make any strides toward expunging the records of people who have been convicted of the low-level marijuana crimes.
“When you don’t have an expungement to be able to clear these matters, these are the next best things that can happen,” Anthony Posada, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, told Gothamist. “At the same time, what is really important to us is to have a true fix where we have full legalization.”
Vance told reporters his office was considering ways to toss out low-level marijuana convictions, but that such a mass expungement would be most easily done through a change of state law.
“And certainly we will be communicating with the governor and the legislature about how that can be accomplished, and I think it should be accomplished,” Vance said.
Last week, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced his office would begin dismissing the low-level marijuana convictions of more than 20,000 people. The DA’s office said it would grant the request for dismissal of past cases, as long as an individual has not been charged with “certain violent felonies and sex offenses.”
DA Gonzalez said a criminal record holds too many people back from finding a job, pursuing their education, or having housing.
“It is only fair to relieve these individuals of that burden and allow them to turn over a new leaf and move on with their lives,” he said.
Some of the warrants that fall under Vance's motion date back to 1978, and could have become a seemingly ingrained part of daily life for some residents.
“I think they will breathe a sigh of relief that this has been resolved,” Vance said.