DMI Blog

Jennifer Carnig

Harold and Kumar Escape from … Sing Sing?

Move over, Amsterdam – New York is the new king of the pot hill… at least, according to stunning new arrest data. Since 1997, nearly 400,000 New Yorkers were arrested for marijuana possession, making NYC the marijuana arrest capital of the world.

Judging from the ten-fold increase in pot arrests over the past decade, you’d think New Yorkers suddenly started toking up on every street corner and subway platform from Flushing to Chelsea.

Not so fast.

According to a new New York Civil Liberties Union report, Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in NYC, the majority of the people arrested for possessing marijuana were not openly carrying or smoking the drug in public. Most people simply had a small amount of marijuana in their pocket or backpack.

But then why so many arrests? Carrying less than an ounce of pot out of public view was decriminalized more than 30 years ago by the New York State legislature, fearing young people would be unfairly tagged with a criminal record for something so common even Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg admit to doing it.

So how is it possible that for committing a violation akin to riding your bike on the sidewalk or rolling through a stop sign, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been arrested, photographed, fingerprinted, and added to the NYPD’s vast and growing database? How has this relatively minor violation forced these people to serve de facto jail sentences of up to three days?

The answer is downright scary: Police officers in New York City routinely coerce or intimidate people into showing marijuana in the open. By pulling the “good cop” routine (“C’mon. Just show me what’s in your pocket. We can work this out, but only if you’re straight with me”), police officers often trick people into taking their pot out of hiding. Once they do, though, the offense jumps from a minor violation to a misdemeanor, punishable by arrest and booking.

The authors of the report, Harry Levine and Deborah Peterson Small, spent years observing criminal court proceedings and conducting extensive interviews with public defenders, defense attorneys, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and those arrested for marijuana. The story was always the same.

The report identifies perverse incentives that cause the NYPD, as well as police nationwide, to focus on marijuana arrests: Marijuana arrests provide police officers a relatively safe and easy way to demonstrate productivity and generate additional funding, especially since police departments rely predominantly on arrest statistics to measure effectiveness.

These trumped–up charges have to stop. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are needlessly being dragged into the criminal justice system. Needless to say, the fallout doesn’t hit all New Yorkers equally. Cops are rarely patting down Upper East Siders for drugs, but routinely do so in Bed-Stuy or the South Bronx.

Check back tomorrow to find out just how the bad the fallout is for black and brown men in the city.

Jennifer Carnig: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:20 AM, May 05, 2008 in Racial Justice
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