Hundreds of Old Pot Cases Could Be Tossed Under DA's New Marijuana Policy

By Rachel Holliday Smith on July 17, 2014 1:15pm 

 Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson explained the specifics of his office's new marijuana policy in an interview with DNAinfo New York.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson explained the specifics of his office's new marijuana policy in an interview with DNAinfo New York.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

BROOKLYN — Members of the Brooklyn District Attorney's team are currently poring over "hundreds" of old low-level marijuana arrests and tickets, deciding which will be tossed out as part of the department's plan to decline to prosecute many people caught with small amounts of pot, District Attorney Kenneth Thompson told DNAinfo New York.

Dozens of prosecutors in Thompson's Early Case Assessment Bureau, or ECAB, who have been specially trained to review these arrests, are sifting through stacks of desk appearance tickets and those pending court appearances as part of Thompson's precedent-setting stance on how to handle drug arrests, he said Wednesday in his Downtown Brooklyn office.

“We’re going to look at each pending case on a case-by-case basis and make a decision,” Thompson said, adding that since the new policy went into effect on July 8, "we’ve already started declining to prosecute certain cases.”

That case-by-case approach by the ECAB will also be repeated for every new marijuana possession arrest in the borough — in a new policy that Thompson hopes will set an example for the rest of the nation.

“We have not found any other DA in the country where marijuana is illegal who’s willing to take a different approach like this," Thompson added. "We think it’s important."

A main purpose of the pot prosecution overhaul, Thompson said, is to free up “our limited law enforcement resources” by dropping many of the thousands of marijuana cases each year that result from police finding a small amount of pot in a pocket or backpack. More than 8,500 people were arrested in Brooklyn last year for low-level pot possession, and two-thirds of such cases citywide were dismissed, Thompson's office said.

He added that he's not worried about the NYPD's response to his office's changes on marijuana prosecution, with top brass instructing officers to continue making arrests for low-level marijuana possession.

The NYPD and the Brooklyn DA's office “don’t have identical interests,” Thompson explained.

“We’re not asking the NYPD to do anything differently,” he added. “If they find someone who’s committed an offense, they have the right to arrest that person. What we’re saying is, once the person has been arrested and we get notified, then we have an obligation to look at the facts of each case and to determine whether we should spend resources on prosecuting that case.”

The details on what will lead the ECAB to decide in favor of prosecution or opt for dismissal remain at the discretion of Thompson's office.

For example, a defendant with no prior arrests or with only a "very minimal criminal record" will not be charged, in general. But prosecutors would likely decide to pursue charges if the individual was caught smoking pot "in a public place, particularly around children," as they would with people with criminal records that indicate they might be violent while under the influence of marijuana, according to the rules issued last week.

Thompson said this week that the discretion would also "likely" encompass people caught smoking marijuana — although he cautioned that that shouldn't give those looking for a place to light up any ideas.

“This policy is not an open invitation for people to come to Brooklyn to smoke marijuana,” he said. “We do not encourage people to smoke marijuana.”

Thompson is no stranger to high-profile conflict with law enforcement. He openly criticized the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk and sparred with his predecessor, DA Charles Hynes, over his handling of child molestation allegations within the orthodox Jewish community.

He said the marijuana prosecution changes are the culmination of his campaign vow to stop pushing young people into the criminal justice pipeline unnecessarily.

“I was honest with the people of Brooklyn that I intended to do something about the way the marijuana cases were being handled,” he said. "I have responsibility over Brooklyn and this is what I believe is in the best interest of the people of Brooklyn."

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