Brooklyn Dismisses 3,500 Marijuana Cases in Latest Steps Toward Justice

    On July 27, a Brooklyn, New York county court agreed to dismiss and seal over 3,500 marijuana cases. With full marijuana legalization now in effect in New York, this sweeping action shows other courts throughout the state the power they have to undo prohibition.

    Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez appeared before Brooklyn Criminal Court Judge Keisha Espinal to request that the court dismiss 3,578 pending marijuana cases in the county, dating back over 40 years. He also asked that she vacate arrest warrants, conviction judgements and guilty pleas related to these cases. Judge Espinal agreed. The cases affected were still in court primarily because of outstanding warrants.

    “There was a movement among the city defenders urging the DAs to dismiss these cases.”

    “In 2019 we had marijuana decriminalization and this year we had legalization,” Yung-Mi Lee, legal director at Brooklyn Defender Services, told Filter. “[Previously] there were tons and tons of marijuana arrests happening on a daily basis. A lot of those cases were still open and not being disposed of. There was a movement among the city defenders urging the DAs to dismiss these cases.”

    Lee clarified that the July 27 action also dismissed “summonses” in the criminal court, for when people were issued tickets for marijuana possession and did not pay them.

    This almost wipes out all marijuana cases in Kings County (Brooklyn), the most populous county in New York state and the city’s most populous borough. According to a press release from the DAs office, there remain eight marijuana charges in the Brooklyn Criminal Court, related to impaired driving. In the Kings County Supreme Court, certain felony marijuana charges will also be dismissed during court proceedings.

    As for the cases dismissed on July 27, they will be sealed within 90 days. This means that no one will be able to see them on a background search, though the records will still exist. However, current New York law requires all marijuana records to be destroyed by 2023 if they are no longer criminal.

    Destroying records is obviously a higher level of protection for people than simply sealing them. But Lee said that sealing these cases now will still provide substantial protection in the short-term.

     

    How Brooklyn Led the Way on Marijuana Relief

    Since 2014, long before legalization, Brooklyn has led the effort to undo the legal impacts of marijuana prohibition. That year, former DA Ken Thompson first stopped prosecuting marijuana possession.

    He noted that the majority—two-thirds—of all marijuana possession charges in Brooklyn in 2013 were dismissed at arraignment. In 2013, Brooklyn had seen over 15,000 marijuana arrests; 93 percent of them were of Black or Latinx people.

    In 2017, Thompson’s successor DA Gonzalez additionally stopped prosecuting most marijuana smoking-in-public cases. He made an exception for people caught smoking in a car.

    Then in September 2018, Gonzalez asked to vacate over 3,000 marijuana possession summonses, and to dismiss the cases. And in December 2018, he asked to dismiss 1,400 criminal court warrants that were issued because defendants failed to appear in court for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

    Between 2018 and 2019, marijuana possession cases in Brooklyn dropped by 98 percent. Marijuana arrests also dropped significantly in 2018—reflecting a city-wide decline in marijuana arrests and summonses after Mayor De Blasio moved to stop low-level marijuana arrests in May that year. 

    Gonzalez’s office began a process to dismiss old marijuana convictions in September 2018. He called on the state legislature to do the same throughout New York. Brooklyn was the first county in the state to begin vacating convictions for marijuana possession. At least 20,000 convictions in Brooklyn dating back to 1990 were eligible to be dismissed—although people were required to apply themselves for this to happen, rather than being assisted by an automatic process.

     

    State Government Follows on Local Reforms

    Years after counties like Brooklyn first started to change how marijuana is prosecuted, the state government has followed suit. In June 2019, the state passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession—essentially removing criminal penalties for possession and making it a civil violation instead, punishable by a fine of $50-100.

    The bill also required that marijuana convictions no longer considered criminal be automatically “vacated and dismissed.” This makes about 160,000 records eligible for expungement.

    And of course, in April this year the state fully legalized marijuana for adult use. Under the new law, possession of up to three ounces in public (or 24 grams of concentrate) is now legal. The law requires that anyone convicted for possession up to 1 pound of marijuana is eligible to have their record automatically expunged, making an additional 150,000 convictions eligible.

    These developments are hugely positive in a state that has historically and more recently been a fierce drug-war battleground, targeting largely Black and Latinx residents. But as New York enters a new era of marijuana legalization, advocates will want to make sure that the state and its courts fulfill the promise to dismiss—and ultimately, destroy—past marijuana cases and convictions.

     


     

    Photograph by Lindsay Fox, via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

    • Alexander is a staff writer for Filter. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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