Bronx DA Slow To Drop Open Marijuana Cases After Legalization, Public Defenders Say

Marijuana was legalized more than a month ago, yet some New Yorkers still have open cases or warrants related to marijuana charges that leave them vulnerable to arrest and other involvement with the justice system. 

Each district attorney’s office in the five boroughs has its own process for dismissing pending marijuana charges in light of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which was signed into state law on March 31st—and it seems some are moving quicker than others.

The Bronx Defenders sent a letter to Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark’s office on April 20th—three weeks after the law was passed—urging her to begin acting in accordance with the law. The letter estimated there were “hundreds” of pending cases in the Bronx in which the most serious charges were criminal sale or possession of an amount of marijuana that’s now legal or reduced to a violation under the MRTA.

“These cases are hanging over people’s heads,” said Eli Northrup, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders.

Open marijuana cases in the Bronx include 41 in which people have already been arraigned on charges and have court dates coming up, according to the Bronx Defenders.

They also include cases in which someone was arrested and given a desk appearance ticket to show up in court, where they will either be formally charged or their case will be dismissed. And they include warrants that were issued for a person’s arrest because they failed to appear in court or pay a fine. According to Northrup, this is likely the largest category since it could include warrants going back decades.

A spokesperson for the Bronx D.A.’s office said, “We are responding to the legislation, and looking to dismiss the relevant cases.” The spokesperson declined to provide additional details on the process or timeline for dropping cases.

Since the MRTA was passed, many judges have been dismissing marijuana charges when clients appear in court, said Ruben Fernandez, another attorney with Bronx Defenders. If someone were convicted of a marijuana charge that’s no longer a crime, it would be automatically expunged under the new law. 

But unresolved legal issues can still have serious consequences.

If someone has an open warrant, for instance, that means they can be arrested if they are stopped by a police officer.

“But clearing a warrant is a process,” said Fernandez, noting that it has to be done in person. “Sometimes you have no idea if you have a warrant.”

Court dates can also be a burden. “It means you lose work,” Fernandez said. “It means you need child care. It might be easier now because you can appear virtually, but what if you don’t have virtual capabilities?” 

Gothamist/WNYC reached out to other district attorneys’ offices in the city to ask about their progress in dismissing open marijuana cases. The Queens and Staten Island district attorneys’ offices did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Queens Defenders said the district attorney’s office is “dismissing weed cases in Queens. Slowly, but they are.”

A spokesperson for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement, “We don’t intend to submit marijuana charges to juries or grand juries. We also intend to dismiss pending marijuana offenses that are legal under the law in the course of court proceedings.”

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was the only one to offer details on the process. The office is dismissing pending charges on a rolling basis, based on the individual’s scheduled court date, a spokesperson said. She added that the D.A. is working with the Office of Court Administration to compile a list of relevant warrants and will “vacate those warrants and dismiss the charges en masse once that is complete, which we hope will be in the near future.”

Meanwhile, the neighboring Nassau County District Attorney took action to vacate warrants in more than 1,100 cases about a week after the MRTA took effect.