In a significant law enforcement policy shift, NYPD officers will now have discretion to issue summonses instead of arresting people found with 25 grams or less of marijuana -- about enough to fill a plastic sandwich bag, officials said Monday.
The policy, articulated at a news conference given by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton, essentially gives officers leeway to issue tickets for noncriminal violations for what is still a misdemeanor offense under state law. The move is aimed at freeing up cops from processing some low-level arrests and unburdening young people, mostly blacks and Hispanics according to de Blasio, from the stigma of an arrest and spending time in a jail cell.
"This new policy will reduce unnecessary arrests for minor marijuana possession and put an end to an era where many young New Yorkers were being arrested and saddled with criminal records for minor violations," said de Blasio in a prepared statement.
Cops can still make arrests under certain conditions, such as when pot is smoked in public or if a person has an outstanding warrant or no identification, Bratton said. The guidelines take effect on Nov. 19 and subject offenders to fines, he added.
So far this year there have been 24,081 arrests for marijuana misdemeanor possession, down 3 percent from the same period last year. Marijuana arrests have been declining since 2012, although police had no specific numbers.
Summonses require a court appearance and failing to appear could mean an arrest warrant is issued.
To illustrate how much pot would be subject to a summons, Bratton held up a sandwich bag filled with 25 grams of oregano.
However, Chief of Department James O'Neill said even if cops find the sample weighs more than 25 grams they may be reluctant to raise the offense level to save police resources.
Bratton said the policy shift had been discussed with all five of the city's district attorneys and the state court system. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said cops already have discretion to decide what charge to bring.
But in a statement, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said the new policy was potentially problematic for rank and file cops.
"As City Hall continues to surrender and change the policies of the NYPD, our members need clear and precise rules regarding enforcement priorities," Lynch said in a statement. "We do not want police officers left holding the bag if crime rises because of poor policy."
Some elected officials supported the change, saying it would help repair frayed relations between minorities and police. The Rev. Al Sharpton applauded the policy shift.
Bratton and de Blasio both said they believe marijuana should remain illegal.
"Obey the law, then you won't have to deal with us at all," said Bratton.
With Emily Ngo
and Alison Fox