June 22, 2021 By Christina Santucci
A Queens Criminal Court judge granted District Attorney Melinda Katz’s request to dismiss thousands of cases for people who had been charged with low-level marijuana offenses—during a virtual proceeding Tuesday morning.
Katz had sought to have the 3,255 unresolved misdemeanor cases be dismissed – after New York state legalized the recreational possession and use of cannabis earlier this year.
Under the new Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), New Yorkers 21 years of age and older are allowed to possess up to three ounces of marijuana, and made smoking pot legal anywhere smoking tobacco is permitted.
People who had previously been convicted of cannabis offenses would also have their cases automatically expunged from their records under MRTA.
During a 15-minute hearing Tuesday, Judge Jerry Iannece approved Katz’s motion to dismiss unresolved cases in Queens – some of which dated as far back as about 20 years, a spokesperson for the DA said.
Some of the defendants had been arrested, while others had been issued summons. Beginning in 2018, city officials sought to shrink the number of people arrested for marijuana – and instead gave summons in most situations, the New York Times reported.
Of the total, 894 were cases in which defendants were awaiting arraignment—or their cases were pending in criminal court or they had previously pleaded guilty to marijuana charges. Some of these defendants also had outstanding warrants.
In an additional 2,361 cases, the defendants had been issued summonses for marijuana offenses and had outstanding warrants, which may be issued if a person does not show up for their court appearance.
On Tuesday, Judge Iannece also vacated all of the defendants’ outstanding warrants and any guilty pleas, and sealed the cases.
Representatives from Queens Defenders, the Assigned Counsel Plan and the Legal Aid Society took part in the proceeding on behalf of the defendants.
“These dismissals are crucial for our clients – the majority from communities of color – who can now move on with their lives,” said Emma Goodman from the Legal Aid Society.
“For decades our clients have shouldered the brunt of marijuana prohibition, losing years of their lives ensnared in the criminal legal system and denied meaningful employment, housing and other opportunities,” Goodman said.
Katz said that before becoming DA, she had advocated for the decriminalization of low-level marijuana offenses.
“Since taking office, I have declined to prosecute many of these cases and a significant reason is the disproportionate impact criminalization of marijuana had – I believe – on communities of color,” she said.
Katz said Tuesday’s proceeding was another step in her office’s “continued pursuit of justice,” following her successful effort to have more than 700 prostitution-related cases dismissed in March.