Grisanti bill aims at NYPD cops' pot ploy

A file photo of NYPD officers inspecting bags

A file photo of NYPD officers inspecting bags inside Union Square subway station. (March 29, 2010) (Credit: Getty Images)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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This is the part of the state legislative season when "show me the money" gives way to "there ought to be a law."

Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators enacted their $132-billion-plus austerity budget. Now it is up to the schools, towns, cities, institutions and people affected to deal with the cuts.

The next milestone becomes the end of the Albany session, traditionally by July 4. For sure, a big share of the pending business -- proposals to limit local tax hikes and calls to revisit the transit payroll tax -- will relate to revenue and spending. But at this point, nonfiscal questions of liberty and justice also get an airing.

Of these, same-sex marriage will draw the biggest spotlight. Cuomo, touted as simpatico with Republicans on tax positions, tilts socially liberal on gay marriage. The Democratic-controlled Assembly has long supported the measure, which lost 38-24 in the State Senate when it reached a vote under a Democratic majority in 2009.

Each day brings new lobbying and news coverage. You've heard the essentials of the debate before.

But a more surprising fight over individual rights is also brewing, one that may blur the usual partisan alignments. It involves marijuana possession and the legitimacy of certain police searches.

Last week, state Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo introduced a bill aimed at addressing complaints about New York Police Department stop-and-frisk practices.

Grisanti -- a Democrat elected on the Republican line last November -- happens to be a seasoned criminal-defense attorney, which, in a bit of partisan role reversal, drew fire from Antoine Thompson, the Democratic incumbent he unseated by a close margin.

Now an indispensable part of the GOP majority, Grisanti proposes to remove a portion of the penal law that critics say has allowed police to turn noncriminal possession of small amounts of marijuana into a crafty official rationale for numerous misdemeanor arrests, a number of which are later voided in court.

Current law makes it a misdemeanor for a person to have pot, in a public place, that is "burning or open to public view." As explained by the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes what it calls "alternatives to the drug war," this allows police under pressure for arrest numbers to skirt the intent of the state's 1977 "decriminalizing" of marijuana.

"Often when police stop and question a person, they say 'empty your pockets' or 'open your bag.' Many people comply, even though they're not legally required to do so," says the group's report on the issue. "If a person pulls marijuana from their pocket or bag, it is then 'open to public view,' a crime. The police then arrest the person."

Politically, the clash has a racial aspect -- as have other stop-and-frisk practices.

A memo filed in support of Grisanti's bill, now before the codes committee, put it this way: "Of the 50,383 people arrested in New York City for marijuana possession in public view, nearly 86 percent were black and Latino. Nearly 70 percent were between the ages of 16-29 even though U.S. Government surveys of high school seniors show that whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos," Grisanti's memo says.

The bill sponsored by Grisanti, whose district is surveyed at more than 41 percent black and Hispanic, would remove the statute's "public view" language. So, any proper search that turns up less than 25 grams of the substance would result only in a violation, punishable by a fine.

Call this, if it succeeds, a "re-decriminalization."