Policy: Law

Congressman to NY police: Too many pot arrests

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NEW YORK (AP) — A congressman pressed police Tuesday to reduce low-level marijuana arrests after new numbers suggested little change under a mayoral administration that vowed to lower them.

Under scrutiny since soaring to over 50,700 in 2011, the number of arrests dropped about 9 percent, to about 7,000, in the first quarter of this year and of Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration, The Associated Press reported this month.

But the arrests were heading up in March, and the 2014 total still could equal last year's roughly 28,600, Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries noted. And those arrested still are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — 86 percent in the first quarter — although de Blasio pointed to the racial breakdown in calling the arrests "unjust and wrong" in campaign literature last year.

"The new administration promised change, but instead we got more of the same," Jeffries said at a news conference, calling for "a fair and responsible policy."

Police Commissioner William Bratton noted that the trend this year is downward overall, and he said police and city officials have been discussing both police practices and the laws surrounding marijuana possession.

"My best guess is, if you will, that there'll be continued focus on modification of some of the various laws," rather than on adjusting law enforcement procedures, he said after an unrelated news conference.

Under a 1977 New York law, it's a noncriminal violation to have less than 25 grams (about 7/8 of an ounce) of marijuana in a pocket or bag. But having that same stash open to public view is a misdemeanor, spurring an arrest and potentially a criminal record and up to three months in jail.

Many cases get dismissed if defendants avoid re-arrest. But critics say police improperly get people to reveal their weed, leading to arrest and criminal records that can carry heavy consequences.

Shapriece Townsend says police stopped him about three years ago on a Brooklyn street, saying he fit a robbery suspect's description, and told him to empty his pockets, then arrested him when he took out a small bag of marijuana. After spending three days in jail and losing his retail job, he pleaded guilty and got a time-served sentence, he said; court records weren't immediately available Tuesday evening.

Townsend, 22, says he's been unable to find a job since, and he believes his criminal record from the pot arrest is a factor.

Lowest-level marijuana arrests averaged about 2,100 a year citywide from 1978 through 1995, but more than 36,700 per year from 1996 through 2011. After officers were reminded in September 2011 that they couldn't induce people to bring the drug into open view, the arrests dropped precipitously over the next two years.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in 2012 to decriminalize possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana even if publicly visible. The idea has stalled in the state Legislature.

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Associated Press writer Jake Pearson contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.

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