NEW YORK — New York City police still arrested more than 50,000 people on low-level marijuana charges last year despite a drop off after officers were told not to use tactics that critics decry as tricking people into getting arrested, according to New York state data obtained by an advocacy group.
In fact, 2011 arrests for the lowest-ranking marijuana misdemeanor rose slightly, from about 50,400 to 50,700, the New York Division of Criminal Justice figures show. The Drug Policy Alliance, a group critical of the national war on drugs, obtained the statistics and provided them Wednesday to The Associated Press.
The continued slew of pot arrests came as the drug policy group and some elected officials trained attention on the low-level marijuana charges that account for more arrests in the city than any other crime. Almost 35 years after state lawmakers raised the bar for booking people instead of ticketing them on marijuana-possession charges, these arrests account for about one in every seven cases in the city's criminal courts.
The arrests have soared in the last 10 years. With the 2011 numbers, the New York Police Department has made more than 227,000 bottom-rung marijuana possession arrests in the last five years – slightly more than the entire span from 1978 to 2001, according to an analysis by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine.
To the Drug Police Alliance and other critics, the marijuana arrests are a dubious outgrowth of the NYPD's strategy of stopping frisking people whom police say meet crime suspects' descriptions. Although a 1977 state law says that small amounts of marijuana have to be in open view to merit an arrest, the Drug Policy Alliance, defense lawyers and some arrestees say officers conducting "stop-and-frisks" often book people after finding the drug in their pockets or bags, or by telling the people to empty them and thereby inducing them to bring the pot into the open.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said he didn't have evidence that many arrests were made that way. But amid a chorus of complaints about the issue last year, he reminded officers Sept. 19 that they can't make arrests if the pot "was disclosed to public view at an officer's direction."
Police said the number of marijuana arrests fell 13 percent in the nine weeks after the directive was issued, compared to the same period last year. Kelly said Wednesday that most of the arrests result from officers observing a drug sale or seeing marijuana in public view.
"The numbers are what they are, based on situations officers encountered in the street," Kelly said in a question-and-answer session with reporters after an unrelated briefing. " ... If you have it in plain sight, then it is a misdemeanor. If you're directed by an officer to take it out of your pocket, that's not the intent of the law. That's what the directive was meant to address. Very difficult to quantify whether or not that was happening."
But advocates say people are still being wrongfully picked up for marijuana that's stashed out of view. Legally, that's a violation that is supposed to result in a ticket, not a crime that triggers arrest.
Stephen Glover said he was standing outside a Bronx job-training center in November, sharing a box of mints with friends, when police came up to him, asked him whether he had anything in his pockets that could hurt them and searched them without asking his permission. They found the remains of two marijuana cigarettes in his pockets, he said.
"They just take it upon themselves" to search, the 30-year-old Glover said by phone Wednesday. He said a judge agreed to dismiss the case if he stays out of trouble for six months, a common outcome in low-level marijuana possession cases. Court records weren't immediately available.
The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit legal group, still hears plenty of accounts like Glover's, lawyer Scott D. Levy said.
"Our clients are still regularly stopped, searched, and marijuana is recovered from their pocket, but at no point where they having it out, smoking it," he said. But most take a dismissal deal or plead guilty to a violation, rather than demand a hearing that generally comes after months of court dates and prolongs a case that can compromise job prospects, he said.
"So the vast majority of cases are pleading out before a hearing is ever held and these issues are really aired," Levy said.
Marijuana is the nation's most commonly used illegal drug. Use has declined among those 19 and older since the late 1970s, began to rise again in the early 1990s but not hit `70s levels, according to the latest installment of Monitoring the Future, a government-funded study conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
To the drug-policy advocates, the trend suggests the surge in New York City pot busts stems from the stop-and-frisk strategy, rather than reflecting drug use. More than a half a million people, mostly black and Hispanic men, were stopped in 2010. About 10 percent of stops result in arrests.
Police have said that the stop-and-frisk strategy is an important tool for taking guns off the street and preventing crime, and that the Drug Policy Alliance's studies are flawed and also ignore the context of crime fighting in the city. Murder and other major crimes have declined significantly in recent years, and police say cracking down on low-level offenses is part of the picture.
Meanwhile, two state lawmakers have proposed to make it a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, to possess less than 25 grams or about 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana, whether it's in the open or not.
"New York remains in a fiscal crisis, and we simply cannot afford to arrest tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens for possessing small amounts of marijuana - especially when so many of these arrests are the result of illegal searches or false charges," Sen. Mark Grisanti said in a statement Wednesday. The Republican, who's a criminal defense lawyer, is sponsoring the proposal with Democratic Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.
It's difficult to put a price tag on the city's arrests, but Levine has estimated it cost an estimated $75 million in 2011 to process, jail and prosecute the low-level arrests in New York. That figure was a compilation of estimated court costs, police manpower and jail time, averaging about $1,500 per arrest – a cost shared by the state and city. The city budget alone is $65 billion.
"These bogus arrests continue in spite of the current law and despite Commissioner Kelly's operations order," said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance's director for New York state. He called on state and federal authorities to investigate.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.
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