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UPDATED: Alleged Illegal Searches By NYPD Rarely Challenged in Marijuana Cases

  1. Balzafire
    View attachment 20050 Illegal searches are more common than people realize, but few end up getting challenged in court, law enforcement officials and defense attorneys say.

    Checks and balances within the criminal justice system are intended to ferret out improper arrests, but many defendants and their lawyers say they face insurmountable obstacles when fighting marijuana charges – and the alleged illegal searches that sometimes led to them.

    More than 50,000 people were arrested in the city for misdemeanor marijuana possession last year – the highest in a decade. And a substantial number of these arrests take place in the police precincts where the most stop-and-frisks occur, which are predominately black and Latino neighborhoods.

    More than a dozen men who were arrested in these precincts for misdemeanor marijuana possession told WNYC the police recovered marijuana on them through illegal searches. None of them challenged these allegedly illegal searches in court.

    Limitations of Prosecutors as Watchdogs

    The District Attorney is supposed to throw out cases based on illegally seized evidence. But only police, not prosecutors, are at the scene of the arrest. So what prosecutors decide to charge a person with depends largely, at first, on what officers reveal in their paperwork.

    Under New York state law, a person can be charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession if he or she is smoking or displaying pot in "public view." Each of the men WNYC interviewed said their marijuana was never in public view until police removed the pot from their clothes.

    Jeannette Rucker, a supervising prosecutor at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, heads the Complaint Room, where prosecutors first review police paperwork before they bring formal charges. She reads thousands of police reports about marijuana arrests.

    "When an officer charges somebody for 'marijuana open to public view,' when they write in their paperwork that they found it in the defendant’s pants pocket, I have to dismiss it," said Rucker.

    Rucker (Photo left) said her office throws out 10 to 15 misdemeanor marijuana cases everyday because the police paperwork states the marijuana was actually not in public view. These cases she chalks up to honest mistakes. But if a cop lies in his report – and fails to mention that the marijuana was actually found in someone’s clothing – Rucker said there’s no way for her office to know that without a further investigation.

    That creates a substantial problem for defendants who were wrongfully arrested. Rucker said in most cases, prosecutors don’t even interview arresting officers until after a defendant is arraigned – but she said too many defendants plead guilty right at their first court appearances. Therefore, Rucker said defendants who think they’ve been illegally searched or otherwise improperly arrested have to stand up for themselves right at the beginning of a case.

    "If they’re claiming that, 'I had it in my pants’ pocket,' then you hold that officer accountable, you come in and testify, or you tell us something," said Rucker. "You cannot just stay mute and say, 'Oh, I’m gonna take my plea.'"

    The Cost of Fighting a Case in Court

    But longtime public defenders say fighting a marijuana charge to the end is simply infeasible in most cases.

    Marijuana possession is now by far the most common misdemeanor charge in the city. Defense lawyers say if everyone with a marijuana charge actually fought his or her case to the fullest, the already overextended court system would grind to a halt.

    "People can't afford to fight a case," said longtime public defender Ed McCarthy (Photo right), who supervises a small staff of Legal Aid lawyers at Night Court in Lower Manhattan.

    McCarthy said challenging a charge can mean coming back to court eight to 10 more times for the next year and a half.

    "'I have to be home to pick up my kid, I have to get to my job tonight. I have to do a million things other than come back and forth and sit on a bench in a courtroom for six hours to hear that the People aren’t ready or to hear that there’s no courtrooms available,' which is such a common thing here."

    McCarthy said therefore most of his clients just plead guilty right away.

    Complaints About Alleged Illegal Searches

    Last year, 1,142 people told the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) they were improperly searched during a stop-and-frisk. The CCRB is an independent agency that oversees police misconduct. The police department disciplined three percent of the officers involved in those 1,142 cases. According to the CCRB, the punishment most of those officers got was "instructions" on how to perform a proper search. The most severe discipline – doled out to eight officers – was docked vacation days.

    Defense lawyers say these penalties are too flimsy to deter officers from conducting illegal searches.

    Harold Crawford, a police officer for almost 30 years in Brooklyn who is now retired, said he would see cops do illegal stops and illegal searches -- and they would lie about it later.

    "You could see a kid, walking down a street minding his business – him and his buddy – and out of nowhere, cops just stop, throw these two kids up on the wall, search them," said Crawford.

    But Crawford said it's rare to see someone sticking up for his constitutional rights during a stop-and-frisk.

    "You gotta remember – when you in these communities, when you’re these younger brothers and sisters walking the streets, when you got four officers surrounding you, telling you, 'Go into your pockets and do this, do that,' we recommend that's not the time to challenge an officer," said Crawford. "For the moment, comply, because all you gonna do by not complying is escalate."

    So Crawford said these young men stay quiet as cops go into their pockets, their shoes, even their underwear – where they sometimes find marijuana.

    "If police officers policed the Upper East Side of Manhattan the way they do in this community, there would be an uproar," said Robin Steinberg, who directs a legal defense organization in the South Bronx called The Bronx Defenders. "There would be an outcry. It would on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow, and I guarantee you there would be a lawsuit."

    Pressure to Make Arrests

    According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the vast majority of people convicted in New York after a misdemeanor marijuana arrest ultimately walk away with a non-criminal charge called a violation and pay a fine. Even though most misdemeanor arrests turn into lesser charges, a study by the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, said the city continues to spend more than $75 million a year to keep arresting people for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

    Several police officers who asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to get in trouble with their superiors, offered one reason: supervisors like to see arrests – it’s a sign of productivity.

    That can put intense pressure on street cops to get results, said Eugene O’Donnell, a former cop and former prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And he said that’s the kind of pressure that can lead to illegal searches.

    "The numbers-driven policing is a concern because officers may – in order to make those numbers – feel pressured to represent things that were true that weren’t true," said O’Donnell. "The department needs to state over and over again – out loud, unequivocally – that you don’t break the law to enforce the law."

    Bronx resident Antonio Rivera, who was stopped on the street by police, initially wanted to challenge the improper search in his misdemeanor marijuana case. Rivera said they reached into his pants without his consent and pulled out a small bag of marijuana from his groin area.

    Then he found out a misdemeanor drug conviction could cost him some of the financial aid he’s getting as a freshman at DeVry University.

    "Even if I tried to fight it, I would probably still get bit for trying to pursue it," said Rivera.

    So like thousands of others, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge – in his case, disorderly conduct. Even though all he had to do was pay a fine, Rivera said he thinks the police only found his marijuana by searching him illegally.

    "It makes me feel hopeless, basically, that they could just get away with stuff," said Rivera. "I feel completely powerless because it doesn’t matter – it’s up to them."

    In the end, he said, challenging his arrest in front of a judge would have come down to a he-said, she-said game. Ultimately, it would have been his word against the police's.

    By Ailsa Chang
    April 27, 2011


  1. Balzafire
    Re: Alleged Illegal Searches By NYPD Rarely Challenged in Marijuana Cases

    Pot Smokers: Albany Wants to Help You Out With Those Annoying Low Level Arrests

    Sick of getting busted for smoking that joint on your stoop?

    Well, the folks in Albany have a cure--new legislation that would close a loophole that allows cops to arrest anyone caught with less than 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana.

    The Legislature actually banned the practice in 1977, except where the marijuana is either "burning", i.e., a lit joint, or in plan view. Critics say that the NYPD has exploited that loophole, by intimidating people, largely young black and Hispanics, into emptying their pockets during a stop and frisk. Once the pot is in "plain view," they are arrested. The increase in stop and frisks in the city has mirrored the increase in marijuana arrests in recent years.

    Last year, 54,000 people--including 50,000 here in the city--were arrested for possession of small amounts of pot. Marijuana arrests make up 15 percent of all NYPD arrests--making it the number one type of arrest in the city. Critics have called the pot crackdown a waste of $75 million a year in taxpayer money.

    Under legislation sponsored by Brooklyn democratic assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and republican Buffalo senator Mark Grisanti, folks caught smoking a joint or in possession of a small amount of pot in public view would just be given a ticket, rather than arrested.

    Police currently are "going against the intent of the law," says Tony Newman, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bill tries to get back to that intent."

    "With New York in serious fiscal crisis, 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 mis-charging," Grisanti says. "Furthermore, the unwarranted racial disparities associated with these arrests are unacceptable. This legislation strikes the right balance by discouraging and punishing possession and use of marijuana while promoting smarter, more effective use of our limited fiscal resources."

    The police crackdown is interesting in light of Mayor Bloomberg campaign statement that not only did he try marijuana, but he liked it.

    By Graham Rayman
    May 13 2011
  2. Balzafire
    Protesters Rally Against Marijuana Arrests

    [imgl=white]https://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=20407&stc=1&d=1306387685[/imgl]A group of New Yorkers took their protest over marijuana arrests to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's front door Wednesday.

    Advocates rallied to call attention to what they called unfair enforcement of marijuana laws.

    They said officers purposefully target people of color, claiming that 85 percent of those arrested are black or Latino.

    Some accused the New York City Police Department of tricking people into showing marijuana during stop and frisks in order to charge them with a misdemeanor instead of just an infraction.

    "It's a corruption of the intent of the law,” said City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. “That cannot stand. It should not stand. And again what we are seeing is young people under the age of 30 being criminalized unnecessarily. And at the end of the day it's an inefficient use of our city resources."

    "My problem is that every policy that we always address for some reason affects communities that look like mine more than anybody else,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams. “This is another case of it, and it's just sickening."

    The NYPD denied any wrongdoing.

    Commissioner Ray Kelly said officers are merely enforcing the law, and if opponents want to change the law they need to petition Albany.

    By: NY1 News
  3. Balzafire
    NYC Wins Award for the Most Marijuana Arrests in the World

    [imgl=white]https://www.drugs-forum.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=20408&stc=1&d=1306388221[/imgl]Community leaders, drug policy reform advocates and two members of the City Council gave a satirical award to Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday for making New York City the "Marijuana Arrest Capitol Of The World."

    The rally in front of Bloomberg's posh Upper East Side residence demanded an end to NYC's massive number of arrests for simple marijuana possession, more such arrests and jailings than any other city in the world.

    The Drug Policy Alliance distributed data showing that in 2010 the police made only 34 of the city's 50,000 pot possession arrests in the white, wealthy neighborhood of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But in the overwhelmingly black, Latino and low-income neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn, the NYPD made 3,309 of these arrests -- 97 times more than in Bloomberg's neighborhood.

    Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who spoke at the rally, said these arrests criminalize and stigmatize young people in the East Harlem neighborhoods she represents. WNYC and other investigators have found that the marijuana arrests are often the result of the NYPD's unlawful stop-frisk practices which target young people of color and their neighborhoods.

    In discussing the marijuana arrests, Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, has reported that in these black and Latino neighborhoods police wait for kids to come out of school and search them. "Those same police forces," says Steinberg, "are not being deployed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to stay in front of privileged overwhelmingly white private schools."

    One person at the rally who grew up in that neighborhood and attended its private schools said that the corner near Central Park, one block from Bloomberg's townhouse, was a well-known pot smoking spot for high school students. Government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than Latinos and blacks but 86% of those arrested for this crime are blacks and Latinos.

    The protestors chanted, "No More Mass Incarceration" echoing a speech given by Michelle Alexander, a law professor, and author of the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander's speech, delivered last Saturday at the city's historic Riverside Church, was attended by over 1000 people and called for a large scale human rights movement to end the racially biased "war on drugs" - and for that movement to start "right here in New York City."

    Jesse Levine
    Research Associate, Marijuana Arrest Research Project
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