For Minor Offenses, New Yorkers Go to Church to See a Judge
The NYPD can issue you a ticket for a lot of minor violations—like littering, spitting, and drinking from an open container. The ticket includes a “summons to court” – no big deal if you go and pay the fine—but if you don’t, there’s a warrant out for your arrest. Sarah Gibson brings us to an annual event called “Begin Again,” where the Brooklyn District Attorney is helping New Yorkers clear these warrants.
GIBSON: It’s crowded this morning at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Bedstuy. There’s the smell of incense and a flurry of parishioners organizing lines outside the sanctuary, but the crowds aren’t here for Good Friday. They’re here to meet with a judge.
Volunteer: Everybody has to have a letter in their hand the ones that don’t can’t stand in this line….
GIBSON: This letter she’s talking about is from the Brooklyn District Attorney to people with outstanding warrants for low-level offenses. Jason Hodge is 21 and lives in East New York. He got his letter in the mail a week ago:
HODGE: Ok so this letter says dear neighbor, on april 14
GIBSON: The D.A sent 2,500 letters out to New Yorkers like Hodge, inviting them to this church, where a judge will clear their records of tickets for violations like –
HODGE: Riding a bicycle on a sidewalk, littering, loitering, disorderly conduct, being in park after closing, which is mine, (laughs)
GIBSON: That’s right – being in a park after closing. It was a few days before Christmas, and Hodge was on a date with his girlfriend –
HODGE: It was like 2 in the morning, I’m ready to get her home, safe in the house.
GIBSON: Hodge says he didn’t see any signs forbidding them from the entering a park after dark.
HODGE: So we cut through the park and as soon as we reached out of the park the cop stopped and was like hey you can’t be in the park after hours so we have to give you a ticket and I was like dang I just had a good date and now I have a ticket (laugh), you know?
GIBSON: The tickets had a date on it, to show up in person at court and pay $15, but Hodge says the cop told them to pay online.
HODGE: Basically we tried to pay online but it wasn’t showing up so over time we forgot about it.
GIBSON: Forgot about – until last week, when the letter informed him that because he didn’t pay, his ticket had snowballed into a warrant for a criminal arrest. This happens to thousands of people each year. Eric Gonzalez is Brooklyn’s District Attorney – he’s here today too.
GONZALEZ: Many people, especially people from poor communities don’t go to court because they don’t have the money to pay the fine. They think it’s like a parking ticket.
GIBSON: A parking ticket where you pay like Hodge thought – online, or in installments. Not at court. At this event, called Begin Again, people like Hodge can get their warrants dismissed just by asking. This is Begin Again’s third year, and Gonzalez expects to clear about 1,000 warrants this weekend. The Manhattan and Bronx DA’s have adopted this too – Gonzales says the city is realizing that issuing warrants for low-level offenses hurts community-police relations:
Gonzales – To have the NYC police department knock on your door at five in the morning because you were walking your dog off leash 4 years ago seems to be a waste of taxpayer money and really causes friction between the police and the community.
GIBSON: Back in line, a volunteer motions for Hodge to enter the church.
Volunteer: Have your ID? Everybody have ID?
GIBSON: Hodge nods yes, he has his ID, and waits for a court officer to call his name.
GIBSON: The court officer escorts a group to fellowship hall that’s been converted into a courtroom, with a metal detector, flags, Legal Aid lawyers and a judge. Hodge asks a lawyer if this will happen next month, when his girlfriend who also got a ticket gets back from college. The lawyer shakes his head – Begin again is just once a year. Hodge goes up to face the judge and a minute later, turns around, beaming.
Gibson: How did that go?
Hodge: Dismissed! It’s over with.
GIBSON: When he gets home, Hodge is going to call his girlfriend and tell her the good news, for him at least. She still has to go to a courthouse to clear her record. Sarah Gibson, Columbia Radio News.