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"The Whole System Relies on These Arrests": The NYPD's Racist Marijuana Arrest Crusade And Its National Implications

New York’s marijuana arrests, says a growing chorus of critics, are a prime example of how the nation’s drug laws disproportionately impact black and Latino communities.

 Every morning, several sheets of paper are posted to the walls outside the arraignment rooms of New York City’s Borough Courts. They list the names of the accused scheduled to appear before the judge and the legal codes of their offenses. On most days and across the city’s five boroughs, these lists include multiple names next to the numbers 221.10. This is the legal code for the misdemeanor charge of possessing small amounts of marijuana “open to public view,” meaning the public display or public smoking of pot. In 2010, more than 50,000 New Yorkers were arrested for violating 221.10. The number represented 15 percent of all arrests made by the NYPD and allowed the city to keep its crown of Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World.

Not that there is a credible challenger for the dubious honor. The high number of 221.10 arrests puts New York in a league of its own and has become a lightning rod in the national debate over race and the war on drugs. New York’s marijuana arrests, says a growing chorus of critics, are a prime example of how the nation’s drug laws disproportionately impact black and Latino communities.

This is decreasingly a matter of accusation and anecdote. Hard data are emerging that confirm what marijuana reform advocates and public defenders have long maintained: That the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy in high-crime neighborhoods — sold to the public as a way to find illegal guns and reduce violent crime — has instead resulted in racially uneven drug law enforcement practices that seem to violate the spirit and the letter of New York law as well as the United States Constitution.

This is the story of 22-year-old Hakim R., a resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights who I met one recent morning after his arraignment. He told me he had been walking to work near his home a little after 10 a.m. when two NYPD officers pulled up in a patrol car and stopped him.

“They just came up to me and started frisking me, making me take my shoes off, putting their hands in my pocket, before they even asked me my name [or] asked for ID,” says Hakim. “I was like, ‘You can’t do this, I know my rights.’”

According to Hakim, when the police found a five-dollar bag of marijuana in his back pocket, they charged him under 221.10 and brought him to the precinct station, where he was fingerprinted and locked in a cell for four hours. “I completely forgot I had the weed on me,” he says, shaking his head.

According to the law, it shouldn’t have mattered. New Yorkers have the right to forget about nickel bags in their pockets without risking jail time. But arrests for small amounts of concealed marijuana have grown so common in certain neighborhoods that the law de jure — only pot in plain view justifies arrest — is either not known, or understood not to matter.

The arrests often occur after police carry out a “Terry stop” — a stop-and-frisk procedure named for the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. Police are allowed to stop and briefly detain a person if they have “reasonable suspicion” that criminal activity is taking place. If police further suspect the person is carrying a weapon, they may conduct a pat-down search, which can lead to the discovery of marijuana.

Critics argue that police in New York and elsewhere are abusing the law by searching suspects regardless of whether they actually believe the suspects may be armed or committing a crime.