Brooklyn DA Could Erase 20,000 Pot Convictions, Brown Will ‘Review’

By Jennifer Peltz and David Brand

Queens Daily Eagle/AP

Tens of thousands of low-level marijuana convictions could be erased with the approval of Brooklyn’s top prosecutor, under a new plan for wiping records clean of offenses that are no longer prosecuted in the borough.

District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is inviting people to request conviction dismissals. He said he expects prosecutors will consent in the great majority of a potential 20,000 cases since 1990 and an unknown number of older ones.

Gonzalez told the Associated Press that it is only right to nix convictions that his office would not pursue today.

“It’s a little unfair to say we’re no longer prosecuting these cases, but to have these folks carry these convictions for the rest of their lives,” Gonzalez said.

Across the border in Queens, District Attorney Richard Brown told the Eagle that his office would continue to review marijuana cases that have not already been dismissed.

“Virtually every marijuana misdemeanor arrest results in an ACD — adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” Brown said. “We will take a look at any other marijuana cases that have not been dismissed and review them.”

Over the past few months, Brown has contrasted Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance by continuing to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses.

In July, Manhattan County District Attorney Cy Vance announced that, effective Aug. 1, his office will no longer prosecute marijuana smoking and low-level possession. Vance said the DA’s office “has found virtually no public safety rationale for the ongoing arrest and prosecution of marijuana smoking, and no moral justification for the intolerable racial disparities that underlie enforcement.”

Brown, however, told the Eagle that his office would wait to see how the New York Police Department’s new marijuana enforcement directives — which began on Sept. 1 — will play out.

“We will evaluate the arrests made by the NYPD and will proceed with valid cases — the vast majority of which are eligible for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” Brown said in a statement. “We will continue to offer dispositions that are appropriate.”

Several states have laws allowing for expunging or sealing marijuana convictions in certain circumstances. And prosecutors in San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle — all in states where pot is now legal — have taken steps toward clearing marijuana convictions en masse. California lawmakers approved a measure last month that would require prosecutors to erase or reduce an estimated 220,000 pot convictions. It’s awaiting action from Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Brooklyn initiative envisions a case-by-case wipeout of thousands of convictions obtained under a law that still stands.

New York allows marijuana-derived medications for some conditions, but recreational pot remains illegal, although Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed a panel to draft legislation that could legalize it. There are two medical marijuana dispensaries in Queens. One is located in Forest Hills and another is in Elmhurst.

Before issuing the new policy in Manhattan, Vance compiled a report titled “Marijuana, Fairness, Public Safety” that examined prosecution and legalization strategies nationwide.

“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” Vance said. “The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation.”

Gonzalez and Vance both said the prosecutions did little for public safety but sometimes a lot of harm — jeopardizing job opportunities, housing, immigration status and more — in the lives of defendants who were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Under Gonzalez’ new initiative, people already convicted of pot possession misdemeanors or violations in Brooklyn can ask a court to dismiss the cases. Legal groups are ready to help people with the paperwork.

The DA’s office will oppose requests from people with additional convictions for drug sales, certain violent felonies or sex offenses, for instance. But Gonzalez expects few such cases.

“This is really a relief that I think we can provide, and we do it in a way that is safe,” he said.

A dismissal will ultimately be up to a judge. In general, judges often dismiss cases when prosecutors consent to it.

New York City overall has been shifting its approach to policing marijuana, which spurred more than 50,000 arrests a year as recently as 2011. Last year, there were 17,880, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

A 2014 city policy called for police to issue summonses citing violations, instead of making misdemeanor arrests, for most small-time marijuana possession cases, though not public pot smoking. As of last Saturday, officers have been directed to issue tickets in most marijuana-smoking cases, too.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill supports the move, but the city’s efforts to ease off on pot have drawn criticism from Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins.

“If you want to not have enforcement of arrests,” he told The Wall Street Journal in May, “then you need to change the law.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez is inviting people to request conviction dismissals for offense his office no longer prosecutes. // AP Photo