Warrant Clearing Offers ‘Second Chance’ For Those Who First Show Up

By David Brand

First you show up, then you get a second chance.

That’s the message for Queens residents seeking to clear their open summons warrants related to missed court dates for various low level offenses.

The Queens District Attorney’s office will partner with Borough President Melinda Katz, The Legal Aid Society and the Latino Lawyers Association of Queens County for a summons warrants clearing “Second Chance” event on Oct. 20 at the Universal Church on Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside, located near the 69th Street-Fisk Avenue 7 train station.

The event will enable people to clear their summons warrants related to low-level offenses, including open container, public urination, being in a park after closing, walking an unleashed dog, failure to have a dog license, littering, spitting, riding a bicycle on the subway and unlawful possession of marijuana.

“The event is a compassionate justice issue and an equitable justice event,” said Assistant District Attorney David Chiang, of the DA’s Special Prosecutions Unit. “We believe people shouldn’t be committing offenses in the first place, but we also believe punishment should be proportionate to the offense.”

Chiang said the event is designed to prevent people from going to Rikers Island because they did not show up for court after committing a low-level offense.

“What can happen is someone may end up being held until the next available court date and have to go to Rikers for the night or weekend,” Chiang said. “What might be a $5 to $20 ticket could make you end up a spending night in jail.”

The consequences could be even worse for noncitizens because open warrants can expose noncitizens to federal immigration enforcement.

“Once [arrested], they might be open to scrutiny by immigration authorities and they might get deported for being in the park after dark or for having a dog off leash,” Chiang said.

In 2016, PBS Newshour reported that there were 1.4 million open summons warrants related to “quality of life” offenses dating back to the eighties in New York City. In 2017, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown joined Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez and Bronx DA Darcel Clark in dismissing nearly 700,000 open warrants.

In recent months, Vance and Gonzalez have gone a step further. Both announced they would stop prosecuting some low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, and both have begun clearing warrants for old low-level marijuana offenses.

Last month, Vance threw out more than 3,000 warrants for people who missed court dates for low-level marijuana offenses. A week later, Gonzalez also decided to dismiss 3,146 marijuana summons warrants for low-level offenses, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported.

Chiang said it is up to people with open summons warrants to be “responsive” and “show up to the event” or to the courthouse for a voluntary return. He said it is also the responsibility of lawmakers to change laws related to enforcement.

“Our job is to enforce the laws,” Chiang said. “If legislators are unhappy with laws being enforced then it’s their job to change those laws.

Chiang said the Queens DA’s office expects around 200 people at the event, the number of people who attended the office’s previous “second chance” event in South Jamaica.

Manhattan and Brooklyn have hosted similar warrant-clearing events to help residents address other low-level summons warrants. About 140 people filed to have their warrants cleared at the Brooklyn DA’s “Begin Again” event in East Flatbush last month.

He said the event has received support from local police, including officers from the 107th Precinct in Flushing.

“This is supported by the police department because when a person with a warrant is stopped, it’s a mandatory arrest, which means the police are no longer on the street. They’re processing the arrest for something relatively silly and we want to try to avoid that,” Chiang said.

Chiang said the DA’s office was partially motivated to hold its event on Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside because the region has a large population of immigrants.

The warrant-clearing event could also help prevent confusion about arrests, especially among non-English speakers and people unfamiliar with the legal system, he continued.

“One of the things we’ve noticed in some of these controversial police interactions is that they happen because of these warrants,” Chiang said. “People are stopped by the police and now  they can be arrested and they don’t know why because of a previous ticket.