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NYPD to issue summonses instead of arresting people for smoking pot

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill hold a news conference at the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center in Manhattan to unveil a new policy to reduce unnecessary marijuana arrests on Tuesday. Credit: Linda Rosier

The NYPD plans to issue summonses instead of making arrests for most people caught smoking marijuana in public, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said Tuesday.

Starting Sept. 1, an accused violator of the state’s marijuana prohibition would be issued a summons to appear in criminal court, where the fine can be up to $100 for a first offense. A judge could issue an arrest warrant for failing to show up.

Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated that the NYPD’s new policy would mean 10,000 fewer arrests next year, based on current trends: about 16,000 total last year for the type of crime at issue, according to NYPD spokesman Phil Walzak.

“You will feel the effects of this policy in this city this year, in 2018,” de Blasio said at a news conference in East Harlem to announce the change.

Among the exceptions: People on parole or probation, those without ID, people smoking near a playground or while driving. Subject to arrest also will be those who have been arrested for a violent crime within the past three years, said Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison. A police supervisor must still approve any arrest for smoking marijuana, he said.

On Monday, a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recommended that state law permit adults to use marijuana, which is permitted in states such as Washington, Colorado and California.

O’Neill said he didn’t want to saddle marijuana users with the stigma of an arrest. But, of people who have been arrested for prior violent crimes, O’Neill said: “You have a propensity to commit crimes. And our job is to keep people safe. And if you’re going to commit quality-of-life violations, I think the consequences have to be higher.”

The policy change is intended to address long-standing racial disparity statistics showing that, although whites use marijuana at the same rates as blacks and Hispanics, the latter groups are arrested in numbers disproportionate to the population. The disparities persist on Long Island, too.

In Nassau, the county police policy is to arrest people for marijuana crimes. But for the low-level types, such as a violation of Penal Law 221.10, which covers public marijuana smoking and the drug’s public display, the department tickets and thereby spares an arrestee from being detained until an appearance before a judge, according to Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun.

To qualify for the ticket, a person must meet certain criteria, including being from Long Island, Westchester or New York City, free of warrants and additional charges, and be cooperative.

The Suffolk police press office said by email that department policy is to issue a ticket on the spot to appear in court; an arrest is possible but not the norm.

Also Tuesday, de Blasio said the city would examine whether and how to vacate or seal certain prior marijuana convictions, a policy he said he expected to be discussed publicly within a few weeks.

“There is something we have to address,” he said. “There’s a history here that’s left a lot of people in a tough situation.”

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