By Rory Lancman
Last Thursday, district attorneys from four of the city’s boroughs, including Queens, moved to dismiss 645,000 summons warrants issued more than 10 years ago for low-level offenses, such as riding a bicycle on the sidewalk or violating park rules. Only individuals who have stayed out of trouble for the past decade were eligible to have a warrant cleared.
The dismissal of these low-level warrants is a transformative moment for our justice system that will give thousands of New Yorkers a clean slate, and allow law enforcement to focus that much more on serious crimes.
For decades, over-aggressive enforcement of low-level, nonviolent offenses has been the norm in New York City. Every year, hundreds of thousands of criminal summonses were issued to New Yorkers, largely from Latino and black communities, for petty offenses that in no way jeopardized public safety. As we discovered in a hearing that my committee held on that matter, many of these summonses were defective on their face, written in a way that was legally deficient.
However, individuals who received a summons for a minor offense could face major problems. Those who missed a court date to answer their summons were then hit with an arrest warrant — oftentimes a warrant they had no idea existed — that would result in an automatic arrest during any future interaction with the police.
An open warrant hangs over an individual’s head forever with significant consequences. It can hinder a person’s ability to get a job, secure public housing, or apply for citizenship. For undocumented immigrants, an open warrant can even result in deportation — all for committing a low-level, nonviolent offense.
Before last week’s dismissals, there were 1.6 million summons warrants outstanding across the city, some dating back many years or even decades, but every one posing the risk of unnecessarily running people through our criminal justice system and upending their lives.
Clearly, the summons system in New York City is broken. Summonses for petty offenses backlog our court system and divert essential law enforcement resources away from more serious crimes. Arresting people for low-level infractions committed over a decade earlier made no sense.
All told, it was past time for New York City to make substantial changes to make our justice system fairer and work better for all New Yorkers. The way we viewed justice more than 10 years ago, when these summonses were written, is fundamentally different from how we view justice today.
In fact, many of the New Yorkers who received criminal summonses in previous years would now be given a civil summons, akin to a parking ticket. After the City Council passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act last year, the NYPD recently updated its patrol guide with new enforcement guidelines to make clear that a civil summons is now the default for most individuals stopped for these minor offenses.
We can hold people accountable for their actions without bringing down the heavy hammer of the criminal justice system on their heads.
Throwing out these old, low-level warrants will help our city to turn the page on some of the problems of the past, and toward a smarter, fairer future for our justice system.
District 24, Hillcrest