In June, officials in New York City announced a number of new rules for dealing with minor offenses like drinking in public and urinating in public. For the most part, these charges and comparable minor offenses in New York City – like spitting on the sidewalk or entering a closed public park at night – will now be treated as civil matters rather than criminal matters. Instead of going before a criminal judge in a courtroom setting, accused offenders will attend an “administrative” hearing or make a “court appearance” by telephone.

Convictions for minor offenses will now be punished with fines and community service rather than jail and probation. It’s a change that civil rights and social justice activists have advocated for many years in New York City. Supporters of the new measure say it will divert 100,000 cases a year from an overcrowded criminal justice system, and it will keep thousands from acquiring a criminal record.

Nevertheless, there are a number of exceptions to the new rules. Those who are on probation or parole will still receive a criminal citation rather than a civil citation. So will individuals with two felony arrests in the previous two years.

Police officers also will not give a new civil summons to anyone who has “three or more unanswered civil summonses” in the previous eight years. Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that her group will be monitoring police behavior to ensure that officers are in compliance with the new rules and regulations. “The proof will be in the data,” she told the New York Times.

WHY ARE CHANGES BEING MADE NOW?

The changes are the result of New York City’s Criminal Justice Act, a set of new laws the city approved and the mayor signed last year that have gone into effect this year. New York is a city known around the world for pioneering tough enforcement against low-level crimes, often referred to as “broken-windows policing” that focused on minor offenses as a method to deter more serious crimes.

However, the Criminal Justice Reform Act obligated the NYPD to establish the new rules and policies. Critics of the new NYPD rules and policies – apparently including police officers who spoke to the New York Post on condition of anonymity – say the changes undermine the older policy. “It’s just going to make crime go up again,” is what one law enforcement officer reportedly told the Post.

However, Inspector Thomas Taffe of the police commissioner’s office disagrees. He told the New York Times that the new NYPD guidelines are consistent with “broken-windows policing,” and he is confident that the new rules will not result in a higher crime rate. “The whole issue is that we don’t ignore the problem. I don’t believe it’s going to affect crime in any way,” Inspector Taffe said.

HOW WILL THE NEW RULES AFFECT IMMIGRANTS IN NEW YORK CITY?

The changes will also prevent some of the immigrants in New York City from being targeted for deportation, officials said. Under an executive order issued by the Trump Administration in January, some immigrants can be deported after a criminal arrest, even if there’s been no conviction.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was a vocal critic of immigration policies under President Obama as well, and the city has frequently refused to cooperate with federal deportation efforts. Sarah Solon, a deputy director for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told Reuters, “In the civil system, there is no chance of immigration consequences.”

The Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union contended that the New York Police Department’s concentration on trivial offenses was needlessly exposing New York’s immigrant population to a risk for deportation. Approximately 18,000 people were detained or issued criminal summonses for public urination in 2016, and approximately 90,000 people were detained or issued criminal summonses for drinking alcohol in public. The city does not keep track of how many of those people were immigrants.

However, the city does estimate that about 100,000 people a year will be diverted from the criminal courts and moved into a process that will be conducted by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society, told the New York Times that the changes are “a good step forward,” but she added that many Legal Aid clients already have criminal records that make them ineligible for a civil summons.

WHAT WILL THESE CHANGES MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE PERSON?

What does the new policy mean for the average New Yorker? It means that you won’t be jailed for more than a day for a crime like public spitting, littering, urinating, committing a noise violation, public drinking, or breaking park rules.

Instead, NYPD officers will issue a civil summons and you will be assigned a court date. In 2015, only 21 percent of those who received a criminal summons for a minor offense in the city were found guilty, but 40 to 50 percent missed their court date, and that generated arrest warrants.

Currently, if you miss your court date for a minor violation, the city might go after your finances, but no arrest warrant will be issued. Individuals convicted of minor civil offenses will have the option of community service rather than paying a fine, and none of it will appear on your criminal record. The New York City police and courts will be able to keep their focus on more serious crimes and more dangerous criminals.

If you’re charged with any crime in the state of New York, it’s important to discuss your case as quickly as possible with an experienced Westchester County criminal defense lawyer. If you are arrested, after you have identified yourself and presented identification, you don’t have to answer any questions from the police, and you shouldn’t. Politely exercise your right to remain silent – simply say, “I would prefer to exercise my right to remain silent.”

Don’t try to act as your own attorney, either, but politely insist on having your lawyer present for any questioning. Don’t plead guilty, and do not sign or consent to any agreement or plea bargain before consulting an attorney. You cannot be convicted of a crime unless a prosecutor can prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but an experienced Westchester County criminal defense lawyer can provide the legal help you need and fight on your behalf for justice.

By: Kimberly Pelesz

Family law and criminal defense attorney Kimberly A. Pelesz received a B.S. degree magna cum laude and an M.P.A. degree summa cum laude from Binghamton University. She earned her J.D. from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, where she was selected for Phi Alpha Delta. Her charitable activities include work with My Sisters’ Place in White Plains and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Humane Education Taskforce.

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