New York Times (New York)
By James C. McKinley Jr.
August 09, 2017
For years, beginning in the 1990s, aggressive enforcement of minor offenses, like riding a bike on a sidewalk or drinking in public, was a fundamental part of policing in New York. But one of the lasting consequences of that enforcement has become a major policy dilemma, as more and more people lived with the threat of jail time for long-ago, low-level charges.
On Wednesday, in a sweeping coda to those policing practices, more than half a million outstanding warrants for minor charges dating back at least 10 years were dismissed in a coordinated effort by New York prosecutors to ease the enduring effects of that era.
The district attorneys for Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens collectively moved to dismiss about 644,000 warrants, the latest in a string of actions to reduce the number of people passing through the criminal courts and city jails on charges that would otherwise merit little more than a fine or community service.
The Police Department, in the face of a federal lawsuit, has greatly scaled back its practice of stopping and searching people in high-crime neighborhoods. The police and the district attorneys have reduced the number of people prosecuted on minor marijuana charges; the City Council passed a law last year creating civil tickets for minor offenses that used to lead to criminal summonses; and in June, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced it would no longer prosecute most people arrested on fare-beating charges.
Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said in court on Wednesday that the outstanding warrants had driven apart the police and the communities they serve and created unnecessary obstacles for people seeking jobs and apartments.
“New Yorkers with 10-year-old summons warrants face unnecessary unemployment risk, housing and immigration consequences,” Mr. Vance told Criminal Court Judge Tamiko A. Amaker in Manhattan. “And because they fear they will be arrested for the old infraction, they often don’t collaborate with law enforcement.”
Judge Amaker assented to the motion brought by Mr. Vance, dismissing 240,472 Manhattan warrants. Similar scenes played out in courthouses in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
“The people who have these warrants have not been in trouble with the law for a decade or more, and it is time that they are given the opportunity to live productive lives, free from summonses hanging over their heads,” Darcel D. Clark, the Bronx district attorney, said in court. “As a result, I move to vacate and to dismiss these matters in the interest of justice.”
The mass dismissal of summonses had the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said in a statement that old outstanding warrants “can derail lives, disrupt families and lead to job loss.”
Judge Tamiko A. Amaker of Criminal Court in Manhattan dismissed thousands of outstanding warrants on Wednesday. Judges in four New York boroughs made similar moves on Wednesday at the request of prosecutors. Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
The warrant amnesty may be a boon in particular for undocumented immigrants, who immigration lawyers say face a greater risk of deportation under the Trump administration, which has reversed rules created by former President Barack Obama prioritizing the arrests of serious criminals.
The dismissal of the warrants is “very significant in terms of the immigration consequences,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law.
Alone among the city’s five prosecutors, the Staten Island district attorney, Michael McMahon, did not join in the effort. Like his counterparts, he is a Democrat, but he represents a more conservative borough, home to many police families, where a tough-on-crime tone has long resonated.
“I believe that issuing blanket amnesty for these offenses is unfair to those citizens who responsibly appear in court and sends the wrong message about the importance of respecting our community and our laws,” Mr. McMahon said in a statement.
The dismissals affected a sizable share of the 1.6 million outstanding summons warrants citywide. As a practical matter, arresting people on summons warrants is not a high priority for the Police Department, but such warrants can prompt an arrest if someone is stopped for another reason.
Court officials said there was no process in place to notify people whose warrants had been dismissed. In addition, it will take at least three weeks for court clerks to process the dismissals and notify the Police Department, a spokesman for the state office of court administration said.
All five district attorneys have been hosting events at which people can go before a judge to clear up old warrants for minor offenses, usually by having the charges dismissed.
Still, the total of 644,494 summonses dismissed on Wednesday dwarfs the number resolved at such events. The plan for a mass dismissal of summonses had been in the works since early 2014 and required extensive negotiations with the Police Department and the mayor’s office.
Mr. Vance said the district attorneys had balanced leniency with concerns for public safety. He noted that exceptions were made for people who had warrants for felonies or who were under investigation for other crimes — 60,000 cases in Manhattan alone.
The warrants that were dismissed, he said, were for people who had not had another brush with the law in the last decade. “This is a group I think we can take a risk on,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on August 10, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New York City Scraps 644,000 Old Warrants for Minor Offenses.
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