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Brooklyn DA Offers Chance to Wipe Out New Yorkers' Open Summons Warrants

By Rosa Goldensohn | September 1, 2015 1:27pm
 Thompson said the problem had been neglected for years.
Thompson said the problem had been neglected for years.
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Spencer Platt/Getty

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Brooklyn’s top prosecutor is reaching out a helping hand to New Yorkers with open warrants for summonses like drinking alcohol in public and riding bikes on the sidewalk.

“We’re going to work together and knock these warrants out,” District Attorney Ken Thompson told DNAinfo New York.

On Sept. 12, he will convene a pop-up courtroom at an East New York church for a session of Begin Again, his program that closes the book on old, neglected warrants before their recipients end up barred from housing or jobs, or in jail for the night.

Lawyers and a judge will help resolve peoples’ warrants without bureaucratic hoops to jump through or fear of arrest, he said.

The city’s summons court system, which covers all five boroughs, is currently bogged down with 1.2 million open warrants and “no real program in place anywhere to deal with them effectively,” he noted.

The reason for the backlog is that every time a summons is issued, a court date is set, even for seemingly minor offenses like making too much noise or littering. If a person misses their court date, a bench warrant is issued under their name. That open warrant shows up in background checks, affecting chances at landing public housing and jobs. If a police officer runs a name and the warrant comes up, authorities are required to arrest the individual on the spot.

This makes for unnecessary jail stays, Thompson said, as well as extra work for his team of lawyers, who get involved any time a person is brought into jail booking.

“If someone walks their dog without a leash, and may be forgetful or can’t go to court for whatever reason, then I think that to have that person brought to us in handcuffs is not the best use of resources,” he said.

Thompson wants the old tickets cleared up so the people affected — as well as his assistant district attorneys (ADAs) — can move on.

“What I want to do is I want to reserve our ADAs for more serious crimes,” he said.

The event at St. Paul Community Baptist Church is open to all New Yorkers who think they might have an open summons warrant from any borough. The types of offenses that can be resolved there include drinking alcohol in public, disorderly conduct, public urination, being in the park after closing, loitering, unlawful possession of marijuana, trespassing and spitting, among others. Summonses will be vacated and records cleared.

Felonies and misdemeanors will not be subject to the same treatment, but lawyers from Legal Aid will be on hand to advise.

A similar event in June drew more than 1,000 people and resulted in no arrests, Thompson said.

"There was a woman who brought her son and she was so grateful that she was able to get her son’s warrant and summonses taken care of," he said, "and this young man was able to move on without the fear of being arrested. There was a businessman who travels back and forth to South America who got a ticket for walking his dog without a leash and he said that he had intended to pay the ticket but he forgot about it, and there was a bench warrant issued for him.”

Thompson said the summons court system, particularly the practice of issuing bench warrants for anyone who misses their court dates, is “overwhelmed” and in need of repair.

“A bench warrant should be issued for someone who refuses to go to court,” as opposed to those who have forgotten or can’t skip work, he said.

He asked the mayor in a July letter to expand the program to all five boroughs.

“I can’t do enough Begin Agains to even come close to resolving those warrants,” Thompson said. “I would like for it to go citywide.”

Begin Again will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m Sept. 12 at 818 Schenk Ave. in Brooklyn.