New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday he backs Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to change the state's marijuana-possession law as a way to reduce the number of people charged criminally during a stop-and-frisk encounter -- an endorsement seen as crucial in winning legislative approval.
The change proposed by Cuomo would essentially decriminalize a section of the current marijuana law, which makes it a misdemeanor to possess 25 grams or less in public view.
Cuomo is asking that such open possession be made a noncriminal violation, reducing the chance that a person will be saddled with a criminal record after being found with small amounts of marijuana during a stop-and-frisk encounter with city police.
According to Cuomo, about 82 percent of the 50,000 arrests last year, mostly in the city, for marijuana possession in public view involved black or Hispanic defendants. "This is about creating fairness and consistency in our laws," said Cuomo. "The problem is the law, and the solution is to change the law."
Bloomberg hailed the change as a way to help the NYPD target its resources. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who appeared with Cuomo for the announcement in Albany, also welcomed the proposal and said it buttressed an operational order he made last September, which told street officers not to charge people for having small amounts of marijuana discovered when police asked them to empty their pockets during a search.
"It makes the law much clearer," said Kelly. "It comports with the spirit of the operations order. I think it is a balanced approach that supports our quality of life."
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. also backed the measure, saying it would allow police and prosecutors to focus attention on more significant crime problems.
Cuomo's measure would still make smoking marijuana in public a misdemeanor offense. Laws on criminal sale also would not be affected.
Civil libertarians, long critical of NYPD stop-and-frisk practices, which they claim amount to racial and ethnic profiling, also hailed Cuomo's move. "It's good law enforcement, good for the communities where police officers work and it will help reduce the problems that particularly young people of color face as they try to succeed in life," said Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"Any kind of criminal record makes it so much harder to finish school, get a job and get financially independent," Lieberman said of the impact of a misdemeanor arrest on a young person's life.
The political chances of the Cuomo measure seemed guarded. While Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) voiced strong support, Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Center), the Senate's majority leader, was noncommittal. "I haven't seen the bill, but certainly, like all other bills [from Cuomo] that are sent to us, we'll review it."
Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, called the Cuomo measure "good politics and good policy." Police will be able to back off enforcement of tough laws and relieve tensions in minority communities, he said.
"Does it fully address problems of police-minority relations as it relates to stop-and-frisk? No," said Muzzio, indicating that the practice, which impacts mostly minority people, will persist as a political issue.
With Yancey Roy and Bloomberg News