A single word tweak buried in the new state budget could mean a policing seachange throughout New York.
Soon, police “shall” — rather than “may” — issue court appearance tickets for most misdemeanors and some low-level felonies instead of bringing people to Central Booking.
The measure makes numerous exceptions, including for defendants charged with sex crimes or domestic violence incidents, as well as individuals who have failed to appear for other court dates in recent years.
But in many cases, people who now spend hours in holding pens on minor charges would, come January, walk free with a ticket to appear in court instead, according to experts’ reading of the law.
Among those experts is Counsel to the Governor Alphonso David, who has been a driving force for the administration on criminal justice reform.
“For anyone who has unfortunately come into contact with the criminal justice system because of a minor offense, what this means is that they will not have to go through an extensive, oppressive process of processing but instead will be given a desk appearance ticket and will be given an opportunity to go to court to make their case,” David said in a phone interview Friday.
That “extensive, oppressive process” continues to play out daily in the city’s criminal court houses, as observed by THE CITY over a recent week.
Haggard defendants streamed in, handcuffed, from the lockup behind the courtroom to see a judge after arrests for drugs, trespass, even moving between subway cars. These men and women had spent hours detained before seeing the judge for just a few minutes and then emerging from the courtroom with another court date, an agreement for future dismissal of charges or a fine to pay.
In Brooklyn, a series of Mandarin-speaking young men were charged with lowest-level drug possession, allegedly for using ketamine while playing computer games at an internet cafe in Sunset Park.
A Manhattan man spent the night behind bars for the residue in a crack pipe.
In the Bronx, two men found in a public park at night were charged with trespassing.
All had been arrested and held in custody by police. Absent other issues, had the new law been in effect, these defendants likely would have been able to avoid lockup and go home with a desk appearance ticket, or DAT.
‘I Was Held Hostage’
Keshone Jones, a hospital mechanic, keeps tools in his car because he is on call to fix ambulances around the clock.
At 9:20 p.m. last Tuesday, while driving home in Flatbush from a gym, he was arrested on a misdemeanor weapons charge for having a knife among his gear and was brought to a precinct. At around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, he arrived at Brooklyn’s Central Booking.
Nearly 16 hours later, he came before a judge — and was quickly released. His case was “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” meaning charges will likely be dropped.
“I feel degraded because I am a taxpaying citizen,” he told THE CITY. “I do everything I gotta do, I have a family, I have kids, and it sucks to be locked up.
“I want to sleep, I want to shower right now.”
Under the new rules, police would have given Jones a desk appearance ticket with a future court date rather than sending him on to booking.
Same for Luis Duran, an Uber driver brought in on an obstruction of governmental administration charge after disputing an accusation from a Taxi & Limousine Commission officer. He was released with a court date in early May.
“I was held hostage,” he said after a night and day in lockup.
More than 128,000 people were arrested on the top charge of a misdemeanor in New York City last year, according to state data.
In that time, the police department gave out 37,488 desk appearance tickets. The Center for Court Innovation estimated this month that the number would have been as many as 90,000, under the new provisions.
But Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, noted that the exceptions to the new rule — especially for those who have outstanding warrants, have failed to appear in court or could have orders of protection issued against them — are significant and will cut out many people.
Police could also “overcharge” people in order to evade the new regulations, he noted.
“If they’re not interested in making a significant change, they’ll probably find a way to undermine it and continue their current practices,” he said.
NYPD Changes in Store
People who are given a desk appearance ticket currently are cuffed and brought back to the precinct. They are searched, fingerprinted and undergo a background check.
The entire process typically takes at least four or five hours, depending on what time of day or which precinct the arrest occurs, according to several officers.
David, the governor’s counsel, said that the department will have to develop new DAT procedures to comply with the law.
“If you’re issuing a desk appearance ticket but essentially putting people through this long, laborious process, you’ll be faced with a challenge,” he said. “There’s no reason to do that.”
Under the new law, police should typically check for open warrants while in the field and release people with tickets, rather than hauling them in, David said.
The Police Department said it will take the next eight months before the law goes into effect to prepare to comply.
“The NYPD will utilize this time to implement the significant technological, training and operational changes necessary to meet the changes made in the budget plan passed earlier this month,” spokesperson Phil Walzak said.
Courts also will need to prepare for an expected influx of desk appearance tickets and reduced holding pen population.
“It’s way too early to know what the logistics are going to be, but we’re well aware that this is a major change in how the process is going to be approached,” said Lucian Chalfan, a spokesperson for the state courts system.
In 2016, people failed to show up for arraignment in nearly one in four cases in which DATs were issued, according to the New York City Criminal Justice Agency.
The new law includes a provision requiring courts to remind people given DATs of their court dates. Failure to appear may result in an arrest warrant.
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