CIVIC CENTER — A criminal justice reform law going into effect Tuesday could mean relief for undocumented immigrants worried about being deported for low-level arrests.
Under the Criminal Justice Reform Act — which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law last June with the backing of then-NYPD Commissioner William Bratton — police have the discretion to issue civil summonses for petty crimes like being in the park after dark, public urination and drinking in public, instead of criminal summonses, which have the potential to result in a permanent criminal record.
In addition, under the changes brought by the law, anyone ticketed may now contest the summons at a hearing online, or at one of the five locations for the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). Or the accused may plead guilty and pay the fine online or in person.
The law was signed amid concerns that too many New Yorkers were getting stuck with permanent criminal records due to low-level offenses including being too loud or staying in a park after dark.
The criticism increased after President Donald Trump declared his intent to deport immigrants who carry out criminal offenses, as advocates said federal immigration officials could be likely to go after immigrants who get NYPD criminal summonses.
Alejandro Luna, a former gang member who served time for a home-invasion robbery in 2006 and was deported — only to return illegally, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers again earlier this year after getting a ticket for being in a park after dark and will likely be deported, according to federal court papers.
In 2014, 10,000 people were arrested for low-level criminal offenses, and in 2015, 297,413 criminal summonses were issued, according to the City Council.
With civil summonses, there will be no criminal record, no warrant for not appearing and the cases can be handled online.
“For too long, one small wrongdoing came with a huge cost, taking a large toll on New Yorkers’ lives and opportunities. A minor nonviolent act of poor judgment should not determine one’s destiny,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said when he signed the bill into law, “Today, we are making sure that key low-level offenses are enforced appropriately — without sacrificing our city’s quality of life or our residents’ safety.”
The new law will not affect enforcement against turnstile jumpers, who are handled by the MTA's Transit Adjudication Bureau.
If the accused decides to fight a civil summons, he or she can appear before an OATH Hearing Officer, who will listen to the facts of the case and determine whether or not the person is guilty of the crime. If found guilty, there still will not be a criminal record and the punishment is a fine or community service.
The city has contracted with the Center for Court Innovation, a non-profit group, which is in charge of administering community service directly after the hearing if possible.
OATH already allows persons ticketed to contest their summonses online, over the phone, by mail or webcam. The new law broadens the violations that are handled by the agency.
"OATH recognizes that there are many reasons why someone may not want to spend the time and money to travel to and attend a hearing in person," Assistant Commissioner Marisa Senigo said.
"The only time it will be required to attend a hearing in person is if the respondent would like to complete Community Service instead of pay a fine if he or she is found in violation after the OATH hearing."