Reflections from a Watcher

Manhattan Criminal Court
AR1 Friday March 02, 2018
AR1&2 Friday March 09, 2018 6-1:30am

It’s hard not to watch arraignments in Manhattan criminal court without thinking about the differences between the “progressive” practices of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance vs. Philadelphia District Attorney Lee Krasner.  This week Krasner released a memo instructing his line DA’s on the do’s and don’ts of his office’s new anti-incarceration practices. Krasner’s memo begins:

  1. Do not charge possession of marijuana (cannabis) regardless of weight.
  2. Do not charge any of the offenses relating to paraphernalia or buying from a person (BFP) where the drug involved is marijuana.
  3. Do not charge prostitution cases against sex workers where a person who has been arrested has, two, one or no prostitution convictions.  Withdraw all pending cases in these categories that would be declined for charging under this policy.

Here in NYC, people are still being arrested on decades-old open warrants, as well as prosecuted for prostitution, low-level marijuana possession, turnstile jumping, and misdemeanors related to their mental health diagnosis or addiction. Vance has declared through much public fanfare that he is no longer prosecuting these violations and misdemeanors, and that warrants older than 10 years have been vacated.

However, there is an entire class of people who are still criminalized and prosecuted with these charges because they have had prior encounters with law enforcement and are labeled by NYC DAs and the NYPD in the COMPSTAT/ Domain Alert Awareness List as people: “whose incapacitation by the criminal-justice system would a have positive impact on the community’s safety”.  Who is on this list?  Vance himself tells us: “…the list also includes active gang members, people whom the D.A. considers “uncooperative witnesses,” and a fluctuating number of violent “priority targets…”

Similarly, Vance was celebrated in January for ending bail for non-felonies, however the exceptions to this policy mean that his ADA’s continue to request bail for low-level misdemeanors, as the Court Watch NYC twitter (@CourtWatchNYC) continues to highlight.

This was all abundantly clear to me during the two arraignment shifts I watched in Manhattan last week. Here is what I saw.

People are still being prosecuted and sent to Rikers for low-level misdemeanor drug possession.
The evening of March 9th, a black man in his mid-20s came through Manhattan arraignments having been arrested for allegedly possessing an empty pipe with residue (a violation charge) and resisting arrest (misdemeanor charge). He had been searched at a subway station while in transit and there was no field test done on the pipe – which, as the public defender pointed out, made it impossible to prove whether the pipe was used to smoke a controlled substance. The man had missed court the day before, however it was the day of the thunder snowstorm and the presiding judge reasonably did not issue a warrant. Regardless, ADA Samantha Rayborn requested $1500 bail on the drug charge and Judge Clynes agreed to set bail. The man’s next court date is not until March 19th, which means that he will be jailed on Rikers Island for 10 days unless someone can afford his bail, which did not appear to be the case.

People on parole, probation, or with previous criminal records seem to be more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, have bail set, and found guilty.
On March 9th, a man in his 30’s was arrested by the NYPD the same morning he was discharged from Federal prison (he was in Federal prison in the first place for a parole violation). The alleged crime – stealing three motor scooters (grand larceny in the third) – happened ten months earlier. His mother was in court and wailed: “This was meant to be his homecoming day--” as she sat patiently watching the arraignments all night paying VERY close attention to the fact that everyone else accused of grand larceny was released on their own recognizance.

Instead of her son being ROR’d too, as the others were, the ADA asked for 15k bail; Judge Watters gave him $7500.  His mother bemoaned the fact that he had been locked up again simply because of his prior record. “I don’t understand—everyone else accused of Grand Larceny was ROR’d : why not my son?   I don’t have anyone else and I don’t have the money,” she cried as she shuffled-off down the hallway with her head down.

People are still being arrested for low-level prostitution charges.
The NYPD says it is no longer arresting ppl on prostitution charges but one mother from Midtown was arrested on Criminal Prostitution in the 4th degree (promoting prostitution/pimping) for renting a room in her apartment to another woman who brought an undercover over. She was arraigned on March 2nd in Manhattan criminal court and the line ADA asked for $1500 bail. The public defender argued that she had two young children and this was her first arrest. She was ROR’d .

People are still being arrested for old warrants.
In one case on March 2nd, a man with a warrant from 1987 was brought into Judge Weston’s court. The Line ADA insisted the warrant was still valid but Judge Weston’ couldn’t find it in the system.  The judge released the gentleman to the protests of the Manhattan DA’s office, even though their office allegedly forgave all warrants older than ten years. It seems that these warrants were not expunged for everyone.