The Legal Aid Society and Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP Sue to Stop the NYPD from Making Unlawful Marijuana Arrests

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

  • The Legal Aid Society

The Legal Aid Society and the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court on June 22, 2012, to prohibit the NYPD from continuing to make unlawful marijuana arrests. The lawsuit seeks a declaration that current police practices are illegal and an order that directs the NYPD to implement necessary steps to ensure that its officers comply with the law.

State law requires that people who possess small amounts of marijuana that is not open to public view should be charged with a violation and given a ticket to appear in court at a later date. In thousands of cases annually NYPD officers, having found a small quantity of marijuana in a pocket or bag, charge people with a misdemeanor and subject them to the full arrest process, which often takes 24 hours or more and leaves them with a criminal record.

"This practice of the New York Police Department makes a mockery of the law and causes very serious collateral consequences for large numbers of people," Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, told the New York City Council on June 12 when he testified in support of Governor Cuomo's proposal to decriminalize the open possession of a small quantity of marijuana in order to stop the continuing unlawful arrests.

In September 2011, Police Commissioner Kelly issued an order that prohibited misdemeanor charges and arrests in cases where marijuana is brought into public view because of police action. Despite this order, the practice of filing misdemeanor charges and ordering the arrest for non-public-view cases has continued. Arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana now represent roughly one-seventh of all offenses arraigned in the New York City Criminal Court and persons of color comprise more than 85 percent of people arrested during stop and frisk searches for possession of small quantities of marijuana.

Davis Polk, a long time pro bono partner with the Society in addressing systemic reform of New York’s criminal justice system, has dedicated a multi-talented team, consisting of Jimmy Benkard, Sharon Katz, Nancy Ludmerer, Jonathan Chang, and Moses Sternstein, to the lawsuit. They will work closely with the Society’s senior litigation team composed of Steven Banks, William Gibney and Tom O'Brien.