New York City Council passed legislation making some violations like public urination, littering, making excessive noise, and turnstile jumping minor offenses. The new rules create civil penalties instead of criminal ones for “low-level offenses.”
Under a package of eight bills collectively known as the Criminal Justice Reform Act, police now have the option to issue a fine for certain violations instead of making an arrest. The Act is designed to hand out fairer punishments and ease the burden of the courts.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office seems to agree. Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, says the new rules will allow the city to maintain a high level of public safety, while keeping law enforcement and the courts focused on more serious crime.
“The administration supports creating the option for officers to issue a civil ticket in response to low-level offenses, such as littering. In appropriate low-risk cases, this will bypass criminal court altogether, avoiding the possibility of a warrant for failure to appear or a criminal conviction. The city also supports removing the possibility of jail time for many low-level offenses.”
Also on the list of minor offenses is public drinking. Of the thousands of summonses for petty crimes handed out each year, open container is by far the largest with 116,000 issued violations in 2014.
Approximately 38 percent of offenders never show up to face minor criminal charges, forcing the court to issue an arrest warrant. Glazer thinks this is good indication that something is wrong with the system.
Currently, there are roughly 1.5 million outstanding criminal warrants that go back over thirty years. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who initiated the new legislation, says the warrants cover about 1.1 million people.
The New York Daily News reports that the Reform Act has been in the works for almost a year. Several meetings between the Council, City Hall, and the New York Police Department discussed the idea of eliminating criminal penalties for some offenses altogether. The NYPD successfully argued that officers should have the discretion to make arrests if necessary.
With the new rules in place, the NYPD will issue procedures outlining when law enforcement officers should use a civil or criminal penalty, depending on several factors including if a person is a repeat offender. The possibility of jail time will be eliminated for certain violations like public urination or drinking, and instead a $25 fine will be issued.
Mark-Viverito says the new bills do not legalize or decriminalize anything. She does, however, support erasing the existing outstanding warrants.
“There are open warrants going back to 1980, and people may not be fully aware that they have them. But there should be some kind of consideration to kind of get some of those warrants off the books and just let people live their lives.”
While Public Advocate Letitia James supports most of the bill package, she does not agree with the lesser penalty for public urination. “It’s an issue of basic decency,” she said. “It represents behavior that literally sullies our city.”
In a related Inquisitr report, public urination is legal in Copenhagen, Denmark. The idea behind the legalization was to actually reduce the number of people relieving themselves in public after a long night of partying.
Some predict the new rules will overwhelm civil courts that are already congested. Charged with handling the civil tickets, New York City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings will be jammed up with hundreds of thousands of new cases with offenders not likely to show up.
“If someone doesn’t answer a summons, there should be consequences for that,” said Councilman Andrew Cohen. “I think that’s serious, and I’m not sure we should just disregard those consequences.”
Some advocacy groups don’t believe the changes go far enough. Robert Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project says certain activities like littering, making loud noises, and holding an open container of alcohol are not necessarily crimes and police should not even respond.
In New York City, public urination and drinking, littering, and excessive noise are no longer punished as misdemeanors, but are still illegal. The recently passed Criminal Justice Reform Act gives police the authority to decide whether to send an offender through the civil or criminal justice system.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]