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Stop-And-Frisk and the Marijuana Misdemeanor Arrests Outrage: Good Luck to the Legal Aid Society Lawsuit

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A great injustice is being perpetrated by members of the New York City Police Department on the people of this city. The injustice is not the program known as stop-and-frisk, which is employed by the NYPD primarily to arrest those carrying illegal weapons and to deter even larger numbers of predators from carrying such weapons. Law enforcement authorities believe the program of deterrence and arrests is in large part responsible for the continued drop in crime, particularly murders, over the last near 12 years.

The stop-and-frisk program has been denounced by its opponents as racial profiling and unfair to minorities, and some of the opponents have demanded that the program be abolished. Others demand there be changes. In a recent rally against the program, several of the announced New York City mayoral candidates planning to run in 2013 were present and voiced their criticisms.

I support stop-and-frisk, believing it to be helpful in making neighborhoods safer, but have also protested an aspect of the program that came to light as the result of a New York Times investigation, followed by an editorial and news articles. An editorial from April 2nd pointed out that there have been a large number of misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession during stop and frisk operations.

In 1977, the state of New York decriminalized the personal possession and use of marijuana. The Times of June 23rd pointed out, "Under state law, possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor offense when the drug is being smoked or "open to public view. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana out of public view -- for example, inside an individual's pocket or backpack -- is a violation, warranting only a ticket."

As a result of earlier complaints to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly that cops were turning violations into misdemeanors, the Commissioner issued an order, according to the Times of June 23rd,

Nine months ago, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum directing police officers not to make misdemeanor arrests for possession of small quantities of marijuana discovered when suspects are ordered to empty their pockets in stop, question and frisk encounters. But police officers have continued to charge New Yorkers with misdemeanor crimes -- rather than issuing them tickets for violations -- for possession of small amounts of marijuana despite Mr. Kelly's directive, according to a lawsuit filed on Friday by the Legal Aid Society.

As a result of the earlier Times article reporting these arrests, as well as a Times editorial and the protests of citizens, an effort was made by the governor of the state of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to reach an agreement which had the support of the five district attorneys of New York City to get the state Assembly and Senate to change the law to allow the public carrying of small amounts of marijuana for personal use subject to a violation and a fine of $100.

The response of the Assembly, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, was to pass the legislation. The response of the Majority Leader of the Senate, Dean Skelos, Republican, was to first say, as reported in the Times of June 6th, "I think we can work on that... That is wrong. It should be a violation. You're following the policeman's order." But then he refused to support the governor's bill passed by the Assembly.

In stating, "You're following the policeman's order," I believe the Majority Leader was conveying his assent to addressing the demand of the cop to "empty your pockets" and the governor's proposal to allow the marijuana to be displayed publicly upon such a demand. If I am correct, the Majority Leader would agree, if asked by the governor, to support less far-reaching language that would keep the offense a violation, even when the marijuana was publicly displayed as a result of following the police officer's order.

I urge the governor to immediately ask the Majority Leader if he would agree to new language and if he would, to immediately bring the legislature back from its recess to pass the legislation. In addition, I urge all five district attorneys to publicly state that they will not prosecute anyone charged with marijuana possession for personal use -- other than for a violation. The hideous part of all of this is that studies show that whites are the greater users of marijuana, not blacks or Hispanics. It is black and Hispanic youths who are being arrested and end up with criminal records, destroying many of their already limited opportunities for getting jobs and achieving a better life. This is unacceptable in a society that believes it is devoted to justice and fairness.

I want to congratulate the Legal Aid Society's efforts, led by Steven Banks, for bringing a lawsuit to end the arrests and punish the individual cops who have failed and are failing to carry out the order of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Those young men and women who have received misdemeanor sentences unfairly when violations would have been appropriate, should be given the opportunity to have their records cleared of the erroneous charge.

If the Governor is unable to enlist Dean Skelos in passing the needed legislation now, not next year, I believe we should have a mass rally in City Hall Plaza to demand that the state legislature pass it. The election in November will allow us to punish those who refuse to protect the sons and daughters of this state who are unfairly designated as criminals by the very people they elect.