NYC Weed Arrests Often Stem From Illegal Searches, Almost Always of Blacks or Latinos

"The NYPD's Secret Crusade Against Marijuana Furthers a Racist Agenda," wrote Nat Hentoff in the pages of the Village Voice back in 2008. A report this year claimed the city spends $75 million annually on low-level marijuana arrests -- 350,000 people between 2002 and 2010 alone, enough to make New York City the marijuana arrest capital of the world. Today, a new WNYC investigation puts more journalism behind something most New Yorkers already know: the NYPD's arrests for marijuana possession overwhelmingly target people of color and the searches that reveal the drugs are often being carried out illegally.

WNYC reports that of the 140 people locked up daily, "thousands of these arrests take place when police stop-and-frisk young men in the poorest neighborhoods," demonstrated in the map above. As importantly, individuals' constitutional rights are likely being violated.

Nearly 90 percent of marijuana arrests in NYC are people of color, while "national studies show young whites between 18 to 25 years old smoke pot more than non-whites that age." State law says that possessing pot is only a misdemeanor crime, as opposed to a violation (which is not a crime), if it is being used or "open to public view."

Here's an anecdote that probably gets to a larger issue:

Antonio Rivera, 25, said he gets stopped by police up to five times a month. In January, he said he was stopped and frisked near the corner of E. 183rd Street and Creston Avenue in the Bronx. He was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession. ...

Rivera said his marijuana was in his pants and that police pulled it out of his clothes after searching him without his consent. ... Rivera had lodged a soft Ziploc bag of marijuana between his legs inside his pants while still in the room where he bought it.  He said he never took the drugs out when he went outside, but the police officer who arrested him told prosecutors Rivera was openly displaying his drugs.  

In the criminal complaint against Rivera, the arresting officer stated that he "observed the defendant to have on his person, in his right hand 1 ziplock bag containing a dried-green leafy substance with the distinctive odor alleged to be marijuana in public view."

Ostensibly, stop-and-frisks are meant to address illegal gun possession. An NYPD spokesperson explained, "If an officer conducted an improper search, he is instructed on how to do it properly; unless it was particularly egregious in which case he would face more severe disciplinary action."

WNYC counted over a dozen men with similar tales as Mr. Rivera above, but without videotape, it becomes their story versus the NYPD. But we'll let the lawyer Robin Steinberg have the last word:

"When enough people tell a story in the same way, with the same facts and the same circumstances over and over again - completely different people from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds - you begin to understand that that chorus of voices reflects a reality."

Read the whole report and listen to the audio of the WNYC program here.

[jcoscarelli@villagevoice.com / @joecoscarelli]


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