Brooklyn DA makes history with dismissal of pot charges

Back in September, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez announced that his office was willing to dismiss charges in crimes related to low-level possession of marijuana for anyone requests that charges against them be dropped. On Wednesday, for the first time in New York State history, at Gonzalez request, a judge cleared 28 convictions for minor possession and public-smoking. The action marks the first time in New York state history that multiple convictions for pot possession were erased by a DA.

This comes amid the DA’s ongoing effort to decriminalize marijuana and to wipe out more than 1,400 warrants in misdemeanor weed possession cases. The warrants in question were issued to people with low-level possession charges who have skipped their court appearances. The action is the result of the DA’s “Begin Again” initiative, which was announced back in September.

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According to the Brooklyn DA’s office, Brooklynites were able to meet with the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services at events over the past three months, to file the motions. Lawyers with the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services partnered with prosecutors to host the events. According to Gonzalez’s spokesman Oren Yaniv, defense lawyers for around 200 people who were found guilty of misdemeanor marijuana possession filled out motions to retroactively dismiss the convictions.

Gonzalez assumed the role of Acting District Attorney in 2016 following the death of his predecessor Ken Thompson. He was elected to the office the following year. Since taking office Gonzalez has worked diligently to expand the policy of his predecessor which was instituted back in 2014.

Some advocates for cannabis reform criticized the policy for being too limited to have any substantial effect for minority communities which have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. However, statistics show that arrests for marijuana possession have dropped by 98 percent this year.

The move is part of a much large effort with the state to redirect law enforcement resources to matters more pressing on public safety. Both the Brooklyn and Manhattan DAs have stopped prosecuting the majority of pot possession and smoking cases. An estimated 20,000 people in Brooklyn may be eligible to get their convictions erased.

“My office has stopped prosecuting the vast majority of marijuana-possession and smoking cases, because I do not believe that pursuing those cases makes us safer, and because I recognize that the racial disparities in enforcement with respect to these offenses remained intractable,” Gonzalez told Judge Michael Yavinksy. “The majority of these warrants were issued to black and Latino New Yorkers, and many are remnants of stop-and-frisk policies that harmed many of our communities and that the city has since abandoned. I believe we must do what we can to repair the harms done to the individuals and the communities that were targeted in well-meaning, but misguided efforts of the past.”

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Last week Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the full legalization of marijuana is one of his priorities for 2019 saying it’s time to legalize marijuana “once and for all.” Gonzalez is asking that the measures include a blanket pardon for those already prosecuted under current laws.

“These past convictions do not make us safe, as they may hold back those who carry them from moving forward with their lives as contributing members of society,” said Gonzalez.

Not all cases are eligible for dismissal. For example, many of the hundreds of applicants who were convicted of consuming cannabis.

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