Queens DA Calls For Courts To Toss Thousands Of Marijuana Cases

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz appeared in Queens criminal court Tuesday to ask that more than 3,200 low-level marijuana-related offenses be dismissed and sealed, signaling more change in the city’s justice system following the recent legalization of marijuana in New York. 

Katz, who took office last year, said she is against prosecuting these cases because they have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

She pointed to cases that involved long-active warrants, some of which were 20 -years -old for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

“There’s no point spending criminal justice resources on decriminalized behavior,” Katz told Gothamist. “But at the same time, a lot of our cases today are open warrants and open warrants are very dangerous to have on your record.”

The request for the dismissal and vacating of warrants include 894 cases which involve defendants who are currently awaiting arraignment, have pleaded guilty, or have outstanding warrants. The request also included an additional 2,361 cases in which defendants were issued summonses for marijuana offenses and have outstanding warrants. 

The judge stayed the execution for 90 days, meaning that the 3,255 dismissals will take a few more months to be finalized in the system. 

“Most of the people who have been arrested and charged and pleaded guilty with marijuana possession are people of color, so this is a great, important event,” said Hettie Powell, the managing director of the Queens Defenders. “Now, when these convictions are dismissed, it’ll give them the opportunity to go get jobs that they couldn’t have gotten before, based on their criminal convictions.” 

Once completed, Queens would join Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan in tossing similar cases. 

That leaves Staten Island, but a spokesman for the district attorney there said the office is in the process of working with the court to dismiss more than 1,100 marijuana cases, some dating back to the 1980s and ‘90s.

New York took action to decriminalize marijuana in 2019, but the state became the 15th in the country to legalize recreational marijuana back in March. DA Katz believes that move has been a long time in coming. 

“This is just a step we took to bring a little more fairness into the system, to make the system better and more equitable in the borough of Queens,” Katz said. “There’s thousands of people now who don’t have warrants when they are stopped by the police. That’s game changing.” 

Joseph Gedeon reported this story for the Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit. If you have a tip, some data, or a story idea, email him at jgedeon@wnyc.org or reach out on Twitter @JGedeon1. You can also text him tips via the encrypted phone app Signal,