According to an article in the New York Times this week, up to HALF of all outstanding bench warrants will be dismissed and deleted from the court archives. This is fantastic news for those with old bench warrants for petty offenses that have been hanging over their heads for years.
There are 1.5 million low-level warrants on file in New York, demanding arrests for offenses so minor that many are not even categorized as crimes.
Some stem from unpaid fines of only $25. Many are the result of old tickets for drinking beer in public, disorderly conduct, sitting in a park after dark or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk.
They are part of the legacy of a quarter-century of aggressive policing tactics, known by various names — “broken windows,” “zero tolerance” or “stop and frisk” — but all involve an escalating number of tickets for minor infractions. And at 1.5 million, the warrants have created a class of New Yorkers, in large part black and Hispanic, who stand a good chance of being arrested if an officer asks to see their identification and runs their name through a police database.
Now the city’s five district attorneys are considering throwing out a large number of warrants in an effort to move past the controversies over former policing practices and to spare New Yorkers from being arrested for petty infractions committed long ago.
Many details are still being worked out, like whether to delete just a tenth of these warrants, or as many as half. But the city’s district attorneys have agreed in principle to ask the courts to purge at least some of them — in what will most likely be applauded by advocates of criminal justice reform and for immigrants concerned about increased deportations under the Trump administration.
A warrant can hang over someone’s head for years, even decades, threatening to escalate any interaction with the police into a night in jail, or worse. For undocumented immigrants, a low-level warrant could conceivably lead to deportation proceedings, civil rights lawyers say, particularly given the executive order President Trump signed on Jan. 25 that expands the definition of who is to be targeted for deportation. An arrest on a warrant “throws people right in the cross hairs of ICE and that is particularly scary now,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The Bronx district attorney, Darcel Clark, said that the goal was to “give tens of thousands of people another chance to improve their lives while reinforcing faith in our criminal justice system.” She said that plenty of the warrants resulted from tickets that police officers might have avoided writing in the first place.
“A kid riding his bike on the sidewalk to me is not a risk to public safety and a lot of those tickets were written for that,” she said, adding that the sheer number of such warrants has “become a burden for the community.”
For now, the district attorneys’ offices say they have agreed to purge warrants that were issued at least 20 years ago, a period dating to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s first term and before. That could lead to the dismissal of just under 200,000 warrants citywide, according to figures compiled by the courts.
But two district attorneys — Ms. Clark in the Bronx and Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn — say low-level warrants 10 years and older ought to be dismissed.
Neither the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio nor the other district attorneys’ offices have offered support for an amnesty program of that scope, according to interviews. At least 800,000 very low-level warrants were issued 10 or more years ago, according to statistics provided by City Hall.
The problem presented by such warrants was highlighted by the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The police shooting of an unarmed black teenager there sparked protests and rioting. But the reservoir of anger had grown over years as the police in Ferguson and other communities across St. Louis County pulled over black motorists at a rate greater than for whites and ticketed them for minor vehicle violations.
Unable to pay the fines, motorists tended to collect warrants from towns across the county. When they were eventually arrested for nonpayment of fines, they often ended up being passed between jails and courtrooms across St. Louis County — an occurrence so common that it spawned several expressions: “making the rounds,” the “muni-shuffle,” the “jail hop.”
While many police commanders have credited aggressive enforcement with sharply driving down crime in New York City, there has been a cost. For years, officers, under pressure from their commanders, made a practice of stopping young black men, often without legal justification. The encounters often ended with officers writing dubious tickets, particularly around public housing projects, whose courtyards were policed to such an extent that riding a bike or sitting on the wrong bench after dark could result in a summons. Such heavy-handed enforcementensnared many New Yorkers and provoked resentment.
In interviews, prosecutors noted that people with very old warrants had generally stayed out of trouble: Had their names been run through a warrants database during a police stop, they would most likely have been brought to court on the warrant.
“If they stayed out of trouble for 20 years, good for them,” Karen Friedman Agnifilo, the chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, said, adding that it was “unfair” to keep the threat of arrest hanging over someone for something so minor for so long.
The warrants from over a decade ago are most frequently for public drinking, disorderly conduct, traffic offenses, trespass, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, public urination, littering and violations of park rules, according to data from City Hall.
The push for a warrant amnesty began last summer when the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, asked if the district attorneys supported such an idea. “We were contacted by the City Council, specifically the speaker, last August, about warrant forgiveness,” Leroy Frazer, the chief of staff for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office said. “We were open to it.”
So was Ms. Clark in the Bronx. But as the discussion expanded to the other district attorneys, City Hall and the Police Department, the scope of the proposed amnesty shrank.
“Initially the conversation was about dismissing these warrants 10 years and older,” Mr. Frazer said, “but some offices raised the bar for 20 years.”
Some opposition came from the Police Department, which claimed that old warrants sometimes proved helpful. Dangerous suspects often had low-level warrants, which gave detectives a legal mechanism to make an arrest more quickly than if they had to wait to develop probable cause.
At the moment, the district attorney offices appear to agree that very low-level warrants from more than 20 years ago should be dismissed, according to interviews with prosecutors in three counties.
“There is consensus among all the parties that a 20-year period works and I think it’s important we achieve consensus if we can,” said Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney. “That doesn’t foreclose the possibility that consensus doesn’t down the road go to 10 or that we don’t independently consider going down to 10.”
But some district attorneys want a larger amnesty now, not down the road. “Vacating all summons warrants 10 years or older would achieve the goal of promoting fairness without compromising safety,” Mr. Gonzalez, the acting Brooklyn district attorney, said in a statement.
If you’re still in the dark about whether your old bench warrant still exists, The Law Offices of Jason can personally check up on your case for a nominal fee. Please do not hesitate to call us at 212-920-6950.