Friday, July 25, 2008


Jacob Sullum, Reason - New Orleans City Business reports that Orleans Parish District Attorney Keva Landrum-Johnson has instituted a new policy of charging minor marijuana offenders with felonies if they have prior convictions. Under state law, possessing a small amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in a jail sentence of up to six months but is typically punished by a small fine. Subsequent offenses can be treated as felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison for a second offense and up to 20 years for a third offense. But Landrum-Johnson's predecessors routinely exercised their discretion to treat such offenses as misdemeanors. The new D.A. has reversed that policy so she can rack up felony prosecutions and demonstrate her tough-on-crime credentials. . .

The resulting impact has clogged the courts with non-violent, petty offenses, drained the resources of the criminal justice system and damaged low-income African-American communities. . .

Nearly all of the people facing felony charges for smoking pot are black and poor, because, as everyone knows, virtually no middle-class white people smoke pot. One defendant cited by the paper is a man who was "arrested once before as a teenager 20 years ago" and since then "has married, raised a family and kept out of trouble." Now he may have to spend the money he saved for his son's college tuition on legal expenses.

Also . . .

In 2001, shortly before Michael Bloomberg became a candidate for mayor of New York, an interviewer asked him if he'd ever smoked marijuana. "You bet I did," he said, "and I enjoyed it."

Yet as mayor, Bloomberg has presided over what a recent report from the New York Civil Liberties Union calls a "marijuana arrest crusade," seeking to punish pot smokers for an activity he enjoyed with impunity. This little-noticed crackdown, which began under Rudy Giuliani, has disproportionately affected young black and Hispanic men, engendering resentment, distrust of the police, and disrespect for the law.

"From 1997 to 2006," sociologist Harry Levine and drug policy activist Deborah Small note in the NYCLU report, "the New York City Police Department arrested and jailed more than 353,000 people simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. This was eleven times more marijuana arrests than in the previous decade."

Based on their analysis of arrest data and their interviews with police, arrestees, and public defenders, Levine and Small conclude that the pot busts are largely a byproduct of the NYPD's aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police may briefly detain people they suspect of involvement in criminal activity and, as a precautionary measure, pat them down for weapons. Taking advantage of this Fourth Amendment loophole, New York City police stopped and frisked people more than half a million times in 2006.

In the vast majority of cases, these stops do not result in arrests. But sometimes people are carrying small amounts of marijuana. Since police cannot legally search for drugs without probable cause, Levine and Small found, they typically trick or intimidate people into revealing their pot, at which point they can be arrested.


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