FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE.
Friday, September 7, 2018
As the Vast Majority of Such Cases are No Longer Being Prosecuted in Brooklyn, DA Will Consent to Defense Counsel Motions to Vacate Past Convictions
First Opportunity to File Motions Will Be During Begin Again Event on September 21-22, When Marijuana-Related Warrants and Other Summons Warrants Will Be Cleared; Community-Based Consultation Sessions to Follow
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez today announced that his Office will offer those with a low-level conviction for marijuana possession the opportunity to erase that criminal record completely in the first initiative of its kind in New York State. Under this program, anyone convicted of low-level marijuana possession (PL 221.15, PL 221.10 or PL 221.05) will be eligible to file a motion asking to vacate that conviction and dismiss the underlying charge. The District Attorney’s Office will consent to that motion.
The program – which is one of the recommendations DA Gonzalez adopted as part of his Justice 2020 Initiative – will run in partnership with The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, Brooklyn Law School and the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law. The first opportunity for individuals to get legal consultation and fill in the motion will take place during an upcoming Begin Again event on September 21-22, 2018. Additional community-based sessions will be held periodically in the coming months. Those eligible will not have to appear in court when a judge decides to vacate their past convictions on a later date. This program follows DA Gonzalez’s decision to stop prosecuting all but the most egregious cases involving possession and smoking of small amounts of marijuana.
District Attorney Gonzalez said, “As we move away from criminalizing low-level possession and use of marijuana, we cannot forget those who carry a conviction for conduct that is no longer being prosecuted. That criminal record can seriously impede a person’s ability to get a job, education, housing and other important services. It is only fair to relieve these individuals of that burden and allow them to turn over a new leaf and move on with their lives. I encourage anyone who may be eligible for this important relief to take advantage of this opportunity.”
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said, “Far too often, arrests for committing low-level offenses follow our young people – mostly black and brown men – throughout their lives, causing them to lose out on critical resources they need to survive. This new initiative allows for individuals who have misdemeanor marijuana convictions to get the fresh start they deserve. I thank Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez for his leadership in ensuring New York City is on the path to becoming a fair and equal City for all.”
Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director at the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “It is encouraging to see the Brooklyn DA take this much-needed step to address the legacy of New York’s marijuana arrest crusade. Addressing low-level marijuana arrest records that continue to haunt New Yorkers for decades is a critical component of marijuana policy reform that truly acknowledges the immense harm caused by prohibition. We hope this proactive shift by DA Gonzalez will spark similar efforts from District Attorneys across the state. Marijuana legalization is coming, but we don’t have to wait for legalization to begin efforts to correct the serious harms that communities and individuals experienced because of biased enforcement.”
Dawn Ryan, Attorney-In-Charge of the Brooklyn Trial Office at The Legal Aid Society, said, “Today’s announcement from the Brooklyn District Attorney will afford thousands an opportunity to start anew who were struggling with the blemish of a marijuana conviction on their record. This is very much an encouraging step towards righting the wrongs of the failed war on drugs that has primarily targeted communities of color. We look forward to working with the DA’s Office on this important initiative over the coming weeks and months.”
Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said, “Brooklyn Defender Services is pleased to work with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office to begin eliminating past convictions for marijuana possession. We look forward to actively pursuing vacating of these past cases, so members of the Brooklyn community are no longer prevented from getting jobs and stop facing serious consequences like disqualification from student loans or deportation.”
Courtney Oliva, Executive Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, said, “The Center is proud to partner with and support the Brooklyn DA in his Office’s efforts to help communities remove barriers to employment, housing and other important benefits by erasing past marijuana convictions. We hope that this necessary step is taken by other prosecutorial offices and agencies.”
Kate Mogulescu, Co-Director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Brooklyn Law School, said, “The Center for Criminal Justice recognizes this effort as an important step in eliminating the significant obstacles faced by individuals who have been arrested, and have criminal records, for marijuana possession. The burden of decades of policing of low-level marijuana offenses has fallen squarely on communities of color and caused disenfranchisement and marginalization. Brooklyn Law students, faculty and staff look forward to working with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and our defender colleagues to bring this critical relief to as many people as possible.”
Under the new program, those with a past conviction for one of the specified offenses will meet with a defense lawyer, who will counsel them and assist in filling out a motion. After a review by the DA’s Office, the case will subsequently be called in court, where the DA’s Office will consent to the motion and ask that the conviction be vacated, and the underlying charge dismissed. Individuals will also have the option of waiving their appearance in court if they so choose. Exceptions to eligibility include individuals with other convictions for certain violent felonies or sex offenses. It is estimated that about 20,000 people have been convicted in Brooklyn for one of the specified offenses since 1990.
The first opportunity to meet with a defense lawyer and fill out the motion to vacate will be at a Begin Again event that will be held on September 21st and 22nd between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in Lenox Road Baptist Church at 1356 Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. Additional sessions will be held periodically in future dates.
The District Attorney announced that during the event – in which people with outstanding summons warrants are encouraged to show up and safely clear those warrants – he will also vacate 3,438 open summons warrants stemming from marijuana offense that were issued before September 1, 2018. The DA said that, as the NYPD adjusts its enforcement policies of low-level marijuana offenses, he intends to clear the deck in Brooklyn and erase outstanding warrants. In that spirit, the DA encouraged individuals with misdemeanor warrants stemming from marijuana-related arrests to show up at the upcoming Begin Again to get advice on clearing those warrants as well.
For more information about Begin Again, visit www.BrooklynDA.org/BeginAgain
Starting in the spring of 2018, the DA gradually expanded his policy of not prosecuting low-level marijuana possession cases to include cases involving smoking in public, which are charged under the same statutes as possession (PL 221.10 and 221.05). The only individuals currently prosecuted for these offenses are those who pose a threat to public safety (e.g. driving with burning marijuana), create a genuine nuisance (e.g. smoking on public transportation or in a schoolyard where children are exposed to smoke) or are involved in violent criminal activity (i.e. “drivers of crime”).
Following the policy change, the number of marijuana possession cases that were accepted for prosecution this year declined from 349 in January to 29 in June – a drop of 91.6%. Cases that were declined prosecution now stand at over 70% of arrests and the number of arrests over that time period also decreased by about 60%. In July and August, less than a dozen such cases per month were accepted for prosecution. DA Gonzalez has called for the issuance of civil summonses as a response to low-level marijuana use and possession, as opposed to criminal summonses that make up the current response to most low-level marijuana offenses.