The Bronx Defenders Marijuana Arrest Project (MAP), launched in collaboration with Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, addresses the devastating consequences of the NYPD’s enforcement of New York’s marijuana laws. The Bronx Defenders has consistently taken a leading role in challenging police practices through litigation and policy reform, with a particular focus on “stop-and-frisk” and “quality of life” policing.
In April 2012, MAP announced a preliminary review of data reflecting ongoing and systemic constitutional and evidentiary problems in marijuana arrests by the NYPD. The Project systematically interviewed over 500 clients arrested for low-level marijuana possession between May and October 2011 from every NYPD precinct and command in the Bronx. Preliminary data suggests that over 200 of the cases investigated—more than 40%—present clear constitutional and evidentiary problems stemming primarily from unconstitutional searches and seizures and improper charging of clients by the NYPD. Many of these unlawful arrests were made after NYPD Commissioner Kelly issued an Operations Order specifically instructing officers to discontinue practices leading to illegal charging and arrests. If these numbers reflect NYPD practices across the City, more than 20,000 arrests could be called into question for last year alone. As a follow up to this 2012 report, in May 2013 MAP released No day in Court, a report that shows that people who are unconstitutionally arrested for marijuana possession every year are consistently denied meaningful access to justice in Bronx courts.
The NYPD’s marijuana arrest policy reveals a policing strategy that overwhelmingly and disproportionately targets young people of color and relies on rampant disregard for the civil rights of the people the NYPD is charged with protecting. The New York State legislature decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana more than 30 years ago, making it a violation, not a crime. Research has shown, however, that NYPD officers manufacture thousands of misdemeanor arrests every year by charging clients with possessing marijuana that is “open to public view,” even when it only comes into public view as a result of a police request or unlawful search. In September 2011, Commissioner Kelly issued a department-wide Operations Order #49 specifically instructing all NYPD officers to discontinue this practice.