Bratton: No changes after Brooklyn D.A. pot move

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Ken Thompson. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced today that his office will no longer prosecute first-time offenders who are charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But police commissioner Bill Bratton said that “will not result in any changes” by the New York Police Department, in a subsequent statement.

The rift between two of the city’s highest law enforcement officials is coming just one day after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law making New York State the 23rd state in the country to allow some use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In New York City, drug policy and civil libertarian activists have long complained about the number of arrests for low-level marijuana possessions, which has continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned last year on easing what he called burdensome and ineffective police policies.

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The announcement today by Thompson’s office formalizes a policy floated weeks earlier, and spells out for the first time who would be spared prosecution in Brooklyn, the city’s most populous borough, which also had the highest number of marijuana possession arrests.

A 2013 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union call New York City "the nation’s marijuana arrest capital" and reported that in 2010, Brooklyn had 20,413 marijuana-related arrests and summonses, more than any other county in the state.

The new policy will only affect those with no prior arrests or convictions, or “very minimal criminal record,” who have “provided the police with a verifiable name and address,” according to a press release from Thompson’s office.

Some offenders still face prosecution, including those arrested for smoking marijuana in public, offenders aged 16 or 17 years old (who will be directed to a program for youthful offenders), those with criminal records or violent histories, and those with open warrants or who are registered sex offenders.

“This new policy is a reasonable response to the thousands of low-level marijuana arrests that weigh down the criminal justice system, require significant resources that could be redirected to more serious crimes and take an unnecessary toll on offenders,” Thompson said in a statement.

He added, “This policy does not express approval for the use of marijuana and should not be interpreted as such. The policy will not apply to those who smoke marijuana in public, or in the presence of children. It will not apply to 16 and 17-year-old offenders, who instead will be redirected on to a healthier path through a diversion program.”

Thompson’s office said two-thirds of the 8,500 marijuana possession cases in the borough last year were eventually “dismissed by judges” and defendants were “offered an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.”

“The processing of these cases exacts a cost on the criminal justice system and takes a toll on the individual," Thompson said. "Given that these cases are ultimately -- and predictably -- dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify.”

The Drug Policy Alliance state director for New York, Gabriel Sayegh, called Thompson’s announcement “a very, very big deal.”

“What’s remarkable about this is that a key actor within the system said, 'enough!'” Sayegh said in an interview. He said he hoped Thompson’s announcement would prompt the mayor and police department to reverse course.

“If you look specifically at marijuana arrests, you cannot tell the difference between Bloomberg-Kelly and De Blasio-Bratton,” he said.

“The NYPD is going to have to answer what they heck they’re going to do," he added. "We’re very interested in seeing what Bratton is going to do."

Bratton, who has long defended the policy of prosecuting low-level offenses in order to deter broader criminal behavior, said the NYPD will not change its policies in light of what the Brooklyn D.A.’s announcement.

“We understand that it is the prerogative of each of the City's District Attorneys to decline to prosecute any criminal offense occurring within their respective jurisdictions,” Bratton said in a statement. “However, in order to be effective, our Police Officers must enforce the laws of the State of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs of the City. Accordingly, the Kings County policy change will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the NYPD.”

A spokesman for the mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When reached for comment, a spokesman for the Staten Island district attorney said the office won't comment on what happens in other boroughs, but added, "we enforce the law."