For 3,042 people who have been living in the shadow of a small time pot arrest in Manhattan, Wednesday was the start of a new chapter.
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Kevin McGrath approved a request by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. to dismiss those outstanding misdemeanor marijuana possession and smoking cases from the court docket.
Vance said that nearly 80 percent of the incidents, which date back to 1978, were for people of color, and their communities were living with an unnecessary burden.
“By dismissing these cases, we’re removing all of the adverse collateral consequences — for one’s job prospects, school attendance, housing applications and immigration status — associated with open criminal court cases,” Vance told the judge.
Since Aug. 1, the Manhattan district attorney has stopped prosecuting marijuana possession and smoking cases unless there is a sale or a “public safety risk.”
Vance’s office said it went through an extensive process to determine which of the cases in its system would be dismissed. Only individuals who had a misdemeanor for pot possession or smoking and no other outstanding felonies were given a dismissal, he said.
Judge McGrath sealed the misdemeanors for 90 days so that the district attorney’s office and the NYPD can process the dismissals properly. Vance said that his office is working with the public defender office and will provide it with a list of the individuals whose cases were dismissed.
Carolyn Wilson, the director of the New York County Defender Services, and Seth Steed, managing director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, who were at the hearing, said they will be able to give concerned New Yorkers information on their dismissed cases soon.
“This is significant to changing the lives of our clients and our communities that face overpolicing,” Steed said.
Vance urged Albany to change the marijuana laws so that low-level possession misdemeanors didn’t lead to time behind bars.
“You can drive on the West Side Highway at 75 miles per hour and you can get a ticket. But if you are . . . found smoking marijuana, you can be arrested, processed and held in jail for 24 hours,” he said. “The offense does not in our opinion justify the enforcement.”