City Has Highest Number of Marijuana Arrests in More Than a Decade

Last year, New York City police officers made the greatest number of marijuana arrests in more than a decade, according to new state records.

The NYPD arrested about 50,700 people for low-level marijuana possession in 2011, a figure that comes just months after the department ordered officers not make arrests for marijuana possession if the marijuana was never in public view.  

Defense lawyers and law enforcement experts say they don't think the order has done much to change what they believe to be unlawful police behavior on the streets.

A Distinction of the Bloomberg Administration

There had been a 13 percent drop in marijuana arrests after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued the internal order related to marijuana arrests last September. But it’s too early to tell if Kelly’s order has had an impact, observers say, because there have been historical dips and surges in the number of arrests.

Harry Levine, a professor at Queens College, said marijuana arrests have nearly doubled since 2005. The number of arrests made in the last half of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure has exceeded the total number of marijuana arrests made under Mayors Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined.

"Twenty-four years of marijuana arrests under three different mayors and a number of different police chiefs are still lower than just five years of what Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have accomplished," Levine said.

Allegations of Improper Practices During Stop-and-Frisks

The marijuana arrest data doesn't indicate how many arrests occurred during stop-and-frisks. But critics of the police say stop-and-frisks are driving up marijuana arrest rates under Bloomberg.  
 
For years, there have been allegations that officers force people to display their marijuana in public view before arresting them  -- by either ordering people to empty their pockets or reaching into pockets and pulling marijuana out themselves. Kelly's order plainly stated that an officer may not arrest someone for a misdemeanor in those cases.  

"I would say that about half of the marijuana arrest cases that I see are actually mischarged misdemeanors,” said Legal Aid lawyer Renate Lunn, “and, in fact, even the court papers say that the marijuana was recovered from some place that wasn't in public view, such as a sock or a backpack or the glove compartment of a car.”

Lawyers elsewhere in the city are seeing similar percentages of what they think are improper arrests. Scott Levy of the Bronx Defenders is heading up the Marijuana Arrest Project, which is systematically collecting data on the quality of marijuana arrests they're seeing throughout the Bronx.  

"I would say as much as 40 percent of these cases stem from illegal searches, illegal stops of our clients, and the mischarging of our clients where clients are charged with the misdemeanor of possessing marijuana in public view where they only actually possessed it in their pocket," he said.

When asked on Wednesday if the new state data suggests his order isn't making much difference in what officers were still doing on patrol, Kelly said since he can't see what every officer is encountering on the street, he can't quantify how many officers are ignoring his order.

"The numbers are what they are," said Kelly.

The police argue getting tough on even low-level offenses has dramatically reduced violent crime in the city. But so far, no academic study has conclusively proven marijuana arrests cause any decrease in crime.  Levine, the professor, has studied the criminal records of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City and says the data shows we're not talking about people with violent records.

"A third of them have never been arrested before for anything,” he said. “Another third have never been convicted of anything whatsoever and you get something like about another 15 or so percent -- 20 percent -- who have never been convicted of anything but a misdemeanor.”

And more than half of them are under 25. Even though national studies show young whites smoke pot more, 87 percent of those arrested for marijuana in New York City are either black or Latino -- most of them living in the neighborhoods where the most stop-and-frisks occur.