Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has issued an internal order to the New York City Police Department commanding officers to stop arresting people for small amounts of marijuana possession, if the marijuana was never in public view. The directive comes at a time when the NYPD is taking increasing heat about alleged improper marijuana arrests.
Kelly's Operations Order landed on the desk of police supervisors this week, and a copy of it was provided to WNYC.
In the order, Kelly stated at the outset: "Questions have been raised about the processing of certain marijuana arrests. At issue is whether the circumstances under which uniformed members of the service recover small amounts of marijuana ... from subjects in a public place support the charge of Criminal Possession of Marijuana in the Fifth Degree."
NYPD sources tell WNYC it's the first time Kelly internally addressed the issue of improper marijuana arrests to the entire department since a WNYC investigation in April found police officers may have been recovering marijuana on people through illegal searches.
In New York, possession of small amounts of marijuana is only a criminal offense if it is displayed in public. Kelly's order reminds officers that if marijuana comes into public view at the direction of an officer — either when an officer pulls the drug out of a person's clothes or a person is ordered by an officer to empty out his pockets — it's not a misdemeanor, and instead should only be treated as a violation, which is a ticketable offense.
More than 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana in New York City are blacks and Latinos in the poorest neighborhoods where the highest rates of stop-and-frisk occur. National studies show young whites smoke pot more than blacks and Latinos of the same age.
Kelly's directive arrives just as City Council members and legislators in Albany are calling for an end to improper marijuana arrests. A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession in public view. Bill sponsors Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and State Senator Mark Grisanti said they hope the proposed law will reduce incentives for police to improperly recover marijuana from people to make misdemeanor arrests.
NYPD did not respond to a request for comment
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