The old way of dealing with people found in possession of marijuana has been slowly changing, not only in Colorado and Washington, but in New York City as well. In a historic change, a policy went into effect last week where city cops will stop arresting people on low-level marijuana charges. Instead, if you are caught with less than 25 grams of weed, you will be given a ticket to appear in court (This policy will not apply to people observed smoking on the street. They will still be arrested). If found guilty of the non-criminal violation, a first-time offender will face a fine of $100.
Sounds great, right?
Well, Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, whose office stopped prosecuting low-level weed busts earlier this year, supported the policy shift, but has also expressed concern over the ramifications on the "already overburdened" summons court in lower Manhattan. In an op-ed piece that was published in the New York Times over the weekend, Thompson also worried about the inevitable lack of due process and prosecutorial review that will not accompany the disposition of these summons.
While decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana is certainly a good thing, the problems that are going to arise will be the result of most people's ignorance with how summons court, which processes tickets, operates.
A key concern is that issuing summonses for marijuana possession will result in an excessive amount of bench warrants for those who fail to appear in court, and the influx of those cases is sure to swell our already burdened summons-court dockets.
As of May 2014, there were already 73,000 bench warrants arising from summonses issued in 2013!
A bench warrant is an arrest warrant that is ordered by a judge against a defendant in a criminal case or a similar proceeding such as for a ticket. A bench warrant is typically issued in the case of a failure to appear in court. So, a person who is issued a seemingly innocuous marijuana ticket, may get stopped by the police at a later time, which will result in the warrant popping up. At this point, the police will arrest the person, who will be held until he or she can be arraigned before a judge; a process that can take up to 24 hours.
Most often, summonses are issued for quality of life crimes such as public consumption of alcohol, public urination, and being unlawfully in a park after dark. Clearly, most people would rather get a ticket on the street instead of being dragged away in handcuffs. However, many people wrongly believe they have received the equivalent of a parking ticket. Unlike some charges allow people to plead guilty and pay a fine by mail, marijuana tickets require the defendant to appear in court on a designated date. A failure to appear on this date will inevitably lead to a bench warrant.
If the person does appear in court, there will undoubtedly be a long, long wait before his or her case is called. Also, while convictions for marijuana violations will not give the defendant a criminal record, they are still a matter of public record that may have real-world consequences for the individual.
Certainly, the city and the courts must commit to providing the summons operation with better resources and a potential system overhaul. Even still, for these seemingly petty offenses, it is crucial to consult with an experienced Manhattan or Brooklyn criminal defense attorney.
Sources: New York Times; New York Daily News
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