Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. announced a shift in his office’s policy for New Yorkers arrested for low level marijuana possession. This policy change was created in an effort to reduce the number of New Yorkers, mostly young people of color, who face lasting collateral consequences as the result of a marijuana possession arrest and conviction.
The new policy expands the use of a pre-existing judicial tool, the Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD). The ACD has previously been offered following a person’s first arrest for low-level marijuana possession. If granted an ACD, an individual would not have to plea to a criminal misdemeanor or violation charge. However, the ACD would appear as a pending case on a person’s criminal record for a year and would only be dismissed and sealed should that person not get re-arrested in that year.
“Until the legislature makes progress on marijuana, we are making these ACDs as short as practicable in order to reduce these harmful collateral consequences,” Vance said. “No one should be denied a home or a college education for something as trivial as pot possession.”
The new policy will reduce some of the impact that marijuana prohibition enforcement has on New Yorkers by reducing the amount of time that a person has to retain the ACD on their criminal record and by allowing people who have been arrested for a second time for marijuana possession to also be granted ACDs. Under the new policy, people arrested for marijuana possession can receive an ACD for three months for the first offense (instead of 12 months) and an ACD for six months for the second offense.
“We applaud the District Attorney’s recognition of problematic and harmful marijuana possession enforcement, and the collateral consequences that result, as a significant issue. Yet this policy shift is a band-aid solution to a bullet wound. The NYPD continues to use marijuana prohibition as a justification for massive violations of civil and human rights. As we work toward ending marijuana prohibition, it is imperative that other District Attorneys across the city and state recognize the human toll that marijuana law enforcement has collected and do more to stop the bleeding. If there are District Attorneys who agree with the majority of New Yorkers that marijuana should be made legal, they can and should also decline to prosecute all low-level marijuana possession arrests,” said Chris Alexander, Policy Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Marijuana prohibition enforcement has been, and remains, a priority for the NYPD, who have arrested over 800,000 New Yorkers for low-level marijuana possession over the last 20 years and 17,000 New Yorkers in 2016 alone. Manhattan had more arrests than any other county in New York City in 2016.
“We commend the Manhattan District Attorney for this change. As this City’s primary public defender we see the obstacles that arrest and prosecution for marijuana cause our clients, who exclusively come from communities of color,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “But to fully address the problem, NYPD must end its overzealous and discriminatory enforcement of marijuana possession on communities of color and Albany must take legislative action. While we wait for that, the other three DAs should follow Manhattan and Brooklyn.”
Many of these arrests were the product of unconstitutional stops and searches of overwhelmingly young people of color. Some of these individuals were granted ACDs on their first arrest, but continued racially-biased policing practices, as evidenced by persistent racial disparities, will likely impact the overall success of this adjudicative policy shift. Previous policy changes by the NYPD and the current Mayoral Administration have resulted in a small reduction in arrests but did nothing to curb the racial disparities present in those arrested for marijuana possession.
The District Attorney also announced that his office would be launching a new diversion program in 2018 for individuals given Desk Appearance Tickets (DATs), in lieu of an arrest, when found to be in possession of illicit substances by law enforcement. A low-level drug possession arrest and conviction can result in the loss of access to housing, licensing, employment and educational opportunities, and a person’s status and ability to stay in the country should they not be a citizen. Entrance into the Manhattan Hope program for people given a DAT will result in the DA declining to prosecute the charges against them and will thus alleviate many of these potential collateral consequences.
“The District Attorney’s promise to decline to prosecute New Yorkers for low level drug possession is a very positive step. What is most important moving forward is ensuring that all New Yorkers who could benefit from diversion programs are given the opportunity to do so regardless of their arrest record. If the District Attorney is serious about helping to end these collateral consequences then he should consider expanding the eligibility for the diversion program from those receiving DATs to any New Yorker who is charged with possessing small amounts of drugs,” said Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director at VOCAL-NY.
“Low-level drug possession remains the lion’s share of all drug related arrests in this country and state. These arrests are the product of legislators and decision makers failing to address head on what is, and has always been, a public health issue. The Manhattan Hope diversion program is a good start for the DA but it is also time for the New York State Legislature to take a new approach by putting science based research and compassion first and decriminalize drug use and possession.” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director at the Drug Policy Alliance.