How Cops Turn 'Stop and Frisk' Into 'Stop and Arrest'

Justice-reform advocates want young black and brown men to avoid being tricked by police into emptying their pockets.

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Advocates of drug and juvenile-justice reform have launched a campaign against what they contend are the New York Police Department's illegal "stop and frisks" and the disproportionate number of arrests of black and brown young men for possessing allowable amounts of marijuana.

The "Know Your Rights, Build Your Future" workshops, aiming to inform teens and young men about their rights to resist police officers' random demands that they empty their pockets, were launched last Tuesday night at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building in Harlem. (The New York Task Force on Racial Disparity & Community Justice Network for Youth, part of the San Francisco-based Haywood Burns Institute, held a separate but related event last Friday in Brooklyn.)

The awareness campaign's launch -- and proposed legislation reducing the penalties associated with those arrests -- follows a March 2011 report, "Up in Smoke" (pdf), from the national Drug Policy Alliance and the New York City-based Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives.

New York City has the highest per capita arrest rate for marijuana of any locale nationwide, says Gabriel Sayegh, the DPA's director for New York State. That trend, he adds, runs counter to, as one example, last week's vote by Connecticut lawmakers to legalize possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana and enact a 60-day driver's license suspension for violators ages 21 and younger.

"Up in Smoke" alleges that the NYPD spends $75 million a year on the illegal arrests -- despite the fact that New York State decriminalized personal possession of marijuana weighing no more than 7/8 of an ounce in 1977. Possessing the allowed amount or less is a violation, worthy of a ticket and possibly a $100 fine. But if the person has the marijuana in public view, it becomes a misdemeanor,  a criminal offense punishable with arrest, a fine and even a prison sentence of up to three months.

What's happening is that disproportionate numbers of black and brown young men, ages 16 to 29, are being duped into publicly revealing their allowable marijuana and then being arrested, thereby gaining a criminal record, advocates say. Police officers will say, "Empty your pockets!" turning a routine stop into an arrest and a police record.

"In 2010 in New York State, there were 54,000 marijuana arrests ... 50,000 of them came from New York City, and -- surprise, surprise -- from neighborhoods that primarily are black, Latino and low income," says Kyung Ji Kate Rhee, executive director of the IJJRA. "It's not like these individuals had a felony charge and marijuana happened to be an additional charge ... You're telling me that 50,000 had marijuana in plain view? Does that sound right to you? After that initial point of police contact, they trick you into turning out your pockets."

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Roughly a third of the marijuana arrests are legitimate, Rhee says. The remainder result from racially driven stop-and-frisks for which there is no legal "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has been committed. "A cop approaches a young man of color: 'Where are you going? Where are you coming from? Why are you hanging out on this corner?' " she adds. "Cops can stop people, but there are legal thresholds ... [Otherwise], you have the right to walk away.

"If you're a young person of color, of course, you have to use common sense," she continues. "You have to scope out the dynamics and the landscape. The real test is to ask the officer, 'Am I free to go or am I being detained?' If he says you're being detained, that there's a specific suspicion of an illegal activity ... there's a form they have to fill out, listing a whole series of stuff they have to check off. It can't be just a hunch that a person has done something wrong."