Wading Into Stop-And-Frisk Debate, Cuomo Pushes to Cut Pot Arrests

Governor Andrew Cuomo, wading into the NYPD stop-and-frisk debate, is pushing for the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view — the No. 1 cause of arrests in the city.

Speaking in Albany on Monday, Cuomo said there was a “blatant inconsistency” in the law and the manner in which it was enforced — noting stop and frisks during which marijuana not in public view becomes in public view results in arrests.

“[A] young person has a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, during the stop-and-frisk the police officer says turn out your pockets, the marijuana is now in public view. It just went from a violation to a crime,” he said.

He added, “I think the complication with stop and frisk aggravates the situation.”

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Cuomo’s proposal “comports to the spirit” of the operations order the NYPD issued last September to stop arresting people for small amounts of marijuana possession. The order was issued during a time when the department faced increased scrutiny about alleged improper marijuana arrests.

“This law will make certain that the confusion in this situation will be eliminated,” Kelly said Monday.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, also present at the announcement, said the reallocation of resources “just application of common sense.”

“This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems,” Vance said, “and frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”

He later added, “The drain of the resources in our office and to the NYPD ... is significant.”

Cuomo stopped short of saying the NYPD has been excessive in its use of stop and frisk, saying it is a "well accepted police strategy all across the country. It becomes a question of balance,” he said.

The proposed reform would mean that possession of 25 grams of pot in public view would be charged only as a violation.

If enacted, the change could lead to a significant drop in the number of individuals arrested for possession after a stop-and-frisk encounters with the NYPD.

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the governor's initiative was "consistent" with Kelly's policy issued last year ordering officers to issue violations rather than misdemeanors for small amounts of marijuana "that come into open view during a search."

According to state data from the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the NYPD made more than 50,000 such arrests last year for small amounts of marijuana in public view.

As previously reported on WNYC, 87 percent of those arrested for the lowest level of pot possession were either black or Latino.

Cuomo’s proposal would not legalize smoking marijuana in public. The governor says there’s a difference between possessing marijuana and smoking it in public, or selling the drug, which he thinks should still be classified as crimes.

Ailsa Chang contributed reporting