New DA stirs debate on marijuana prosecution

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 28:  Nafissatou Diallo Attorney Ken Thompson Nafissatou Diallo thanks her supporters during the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case at a press conference at the Christian Cultural Center on July 28, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY – JULY 28: Nafissatou Diallo Attorney Ken Thompson Nafissatou Diallo thanks her supporters during the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case at a press conference at the Christian Cultural Center on July 28, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)

HOST INTRO: For over a decade, New York has been the marijuana arrest capital of the United States. Brooklyn’s new district attorney wants to change that. He announced that possession of small amounts of marijuana will no longer be prosecuted. Uptown Radio’s Chris Mathias has more.

22-year-old Shaprice Townsend was walking home from his grandmother’s Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn apartment one night in 2012 when an unmarked police car pulled up behind him.

TOWNSEND: They cut me off and pinned my leg up against the fence. And so I was trying to turn around and see who it is, two officer jumped out with guns drawn, and they went in my pockets and found a small bag of marijuana on me. (00:12)

The officers, Townsend says, had mistaken him for a robbery suspect. The nicklebag in his pocket– or 5 dollars worth of marijuana– cost him three days in a Brooklyn jail. During that time, Townsend lost his job, and nearly lost his bed in the shelter where he was living. Then, at court, the wait in the holding cell was unbearable.

TOWNSEND: I had to wait inside a nasty–excuse my French– a nasty ass holding cell with a whole bunch of dudes. There was a dirty bathroom. There was no privacy or nothing. (00:13)

Townsend had been arrested in the marijuana arrest capital of the United States. In 2012, there were nearly 13,000 low-level marijuana arrests in Brooklyn.

Since 1977, possession of small amounts of weed in New York is only a crime if it’s “in public view.” Under mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, however, police often brought marijuana into “public view” during what’s become known as a stop and frisk. The number of marijuana arrests soared. In 2011, there were over 50,000 marijuana arrests citywide, more than all the marijuana arrests from 1978 to 1996, combined.

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson argues too many marijuana arrests disproportionately affect minorities, and clog the city’s court system. His plan essentially decriminalizes small amounts of weed in Brooklyn. Those arrested will only be issued a noncriminal violation punishable by a $100 fine. Thompson’s predecessor, Charles Hynes, more often prosecuted marijuana arrests as criminal misdemeanors.

Critics of Thompson’s plan, like Marty Golden, a Republican state Senator representing Brooklyn, accuse Thompson of effectively creating a new law, instead of prosecuting the one on the books.

GOLDEN: We need to uphold the laws so that we send a signal to people across the state that there is a law to uphold and that District Attorney has taken a sworn oath to do that. (00:10)

Advocates of Thompson’s plan, however, argue the DA is upholding the law. New York’s 1977 marijuana law, they say, is much more lenient than we’ve perhaps been led to believe over the past 20 years.

BANKS: In 1977, the legislature said that possession of small amounts of marijuana should not be a criminal offense. (00:07)

Steven Banks is the head attorney at Legal Aid. The organization has defended thousands of New Yorkers arrested for marijuana. Thompson’s got it right, he argues. It was prosecutors under Giuliani and Bloomberg that were wrong.

Townsend waited for hours at the courthouse before pleading guilty to misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana. He was sentenced to 3 days of community service. If he stayed out of trouble with the law, he was told, the charge would be removed from his criminal record. A year and a half later, however, the arrest is still there, and he’s having trouble finding work. Asked about District Attorney’s Thompson’s plan, Townsend is encouraged.

TOWNSEND: If he’s ready and willing to do that, and showing proof that he’s doing that, then I give him two thumbs and two legs up. (00:08)

Ken Thompson’s inauguration is at 2:30 Sunday at Steiner Studios in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

This is Chris Mathias, Columbia Radio News.

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