David Holland, executive and legal director of the Empire State chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), was a special guest at last week’s joint meeting of the New Paltz Town and Village Boards, where an extended discussion was held on possible options for reducing the prosecution of Ulster County residents for possession of small quantities of cannabis. Holland was invited to speak at the suggestion of local attorney Celeste Tesoriero, who has alleged that students and people of color are unfairly targeted under current arrest protocols, based on data that she has amassed by filing Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests with various law enforcement agencies in the county. Tesoriero says that in New Paltz, a black person is eight times more likely to be arrested for Unlawful Possession of Marijuana (UPM) than a white person. Also on hand for the discussion were a number of law enforcement agents, including New Paltz Police chief Joseph Snyder and Ulster County assistant district attorney Joey Drillings.
Village trustee KT Tobin noted that both boards had already passed a joint resolution supporting legislation at the state level to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession and private use. But until such a statewide change takes place, municipalities and their law enforcement agencies are bound by requirements that persons arrested for marijuana must appear in court. If convicted, they can be stripped of eligibility for such benefits as scholarships, student loans, food stamps and Section 8 housing, and be put in peril of deportation if their immigration status is still in process. Holland pointed out that, unlike losing one’s driver’s license for amassing 11 points’ worth of speeding tickets, “New York State doesn’t have an expungement mechanism” whereby such eligibility can be restored over time. Moreover, unlike drinking and driving, traces of cannabis can remain in the bloodstream for up to 30 days after use, even though the individual’s ability to drive safely is no longer impacted.
To avoid consequences that outweigh the seriousness of the crime, many regional courts offer people detained for UPM a type of plea bargain called Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (ACD), in which the charges are dropped if the person stays out of trouble for six months. “ACDs are given out much more routinely now,” noted Holland. “Police chiefs are more willing to discuss it. It’s unprecedented as compared to five years ago.” Two of New York City’s five boroughs now have a policy of non-enforcement in cases where the only charge is UPM, he said.
Arresting someone on a misdemeanor charge of UPM is “a waste of resources if the district attorney is going to dismiss it anyway,” Holland argued. “How much time is taken up writing up the ticket, taking someone down to the station, having them make a court appearance, filing papers with the county clerk? What is the cost to the community?” He recommended an alternative approach in which, short of full legalization, UPM is included under the category of “quality of life” offenses under a local ordinance, comparable to littering or loitering. Under such an arrangement, the offender could be ticketed, plead guilty by mail and pay a fine that would accrue to the coffers of the municipality, rather than the county court system.
The prospect of a solution to the problem of overzealous policing of what is widely perceived today as a very minor offense that also would create a new revenue stream for towns and villages piqued the interest of several board members. In order to “get to a situation where people are fined,” Village trustee Don Kerr suggested that the Ulster County District Attorney appoint a part-time assistant to preside in New Paltz one night per month over all marijuana-related arrests made by all four of the police agencies with jurisdiction in the town. Holland thought that police officers themselves should be empowered to write a ticket instead of making an outright arrest for a UPM.
“The town and village attorneys would have to look at that,” responded Chief Snyder to the idea of a local ordinance putting more discretionary power in the hands of the arresting officer. He suggested that other “nuisance” offenses such as carrying an open alcohol container on the street should also fall under such a local law, noting that when his officers are having a busy night, they typically only ask open-container offenders to pour out the contents of their beverages and don’t arrest them if they are compliant. “This would give us another tool,” Snyder said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Some of the officials present expressed doubts that such a local ordinance could supersede state policies while cannabis remains classified as a controlled substance at the state level. “I spoke to a special prosecutor,” said Town Board member Dan Torres. “There are a number of reasons why that doesn’t work.” ADA Drillings argued that reducing a UPM charge to the equivalent of a parking ticket was properly the domain of a special prosecutor, saying, “I’ve never seen an ordinance when there’s already a state law.” But he also rejected Kerr’s idea of a dedicated ADA for New Paltz as too costly. Questions were also raised as to the ethical implications of determining priorities for law enforcement officers. “As the Town Board, we can’t tell the police what kind of ticket they’re allowed to write,” said town supervisor Neil Bettez.
No specific actions were taken at the meeting, but Holland was invited to draft a model local ordinance that he thought would be likely to withstand a legal challenge from another jurisdiction, based on his many years of working as an attorney for NORML. “Make some suggestions,” said village mayor Tim Rogers.