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NYC Council bills would curb arrests for nuisance offenses

An NYPD patrol car is seen in this

An NYPD patrol car is seen in this undated photo. Credit: iStock

People who commit low-level offenses like public urination or alcohol-drinking could be steered away from the criminal courts under legislation being considered by the New York City Council.

But the NYPD would still retain discretion of whether to issue a civil summons or make a criminal arrest, part of a compromise following a year of negotiations between the NYPD, the council and the mayor’s office, officials said.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had pushed for such changes in her 2015 State of the City address. On Wednesday, she called the legislation being considered “a bold step towards reforming a system which for too long has disproportionately punished low-level, nonviolent offenses.”

“By increasing the use of civil adjudication instead of relying on our broken criminal summons system, we can reduce the long-term consequences of over-criminalization while ensuring that the penalties fit the offense and that police have the tools they need to keep us safe,” Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) said in a statement.

Mark-Viverito’s office said the bills aim to address a bureaucratic challenge facing the courts: the 1.2 million active warrants “which have clogged our criminal justice system.”

Under the proposals being considered, for example, someone caught urinating in public, spitting or littering could face a noncriminal, penalty ranging from $50 to $250, to be heard before a civil tribunal, said Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens).

Failure to pay would mean a civil judgment and jeopardize the ability to get a credit card or mortgage.

“You will not be handcuffed, arrested and sent to jail,” Lancman said.

A persistent quality-of-life violator could still face arrest, Lancman said, “but the vast majority who gets these summonses are ordinary, decent people who made an error in judgment,” then forget to pay a fine or show up to court and “are now turned into criminals with arrest warrants just like alleged bank robbers.”

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