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October 2016
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New Criminal Justice Reform Bill Could Dramatically Reduce Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences

A bipartisan group of United States senators put out a criminal justice bill on October 1 that Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) president Julie Stewart called one of “the most significant pieces of sentencing reform legislation in a generation.” The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was originally introduced in October by Iowa Republican and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley. He was joined by Democratic senators Richard Durbin of Illinois, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Chuck Schumer of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Cory Booker of New Jersey as well as Republican senators Mike Lee of Utah, John Cornyn of Texas, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

The bill primarily aims to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. It would retroactively reduce mandatory life without parole sentences for third drug or violent felony offenses to 25 years and reduce mandatory minimums for second drug or violent felony offenses from 20 years to 15 years in prison. This retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would lead to the early release of more than 6,000 inmates.

“This bill isn’t the full repeal of mandatory minimum sentences we ultimately need, but it is a substantial improvement over the status quo and will fix some of the worst injustices created by federal mandatory sentences,” FAMM president Julie Stewart said in a statement.

Some of the other reforms the bill would make to federal sentencing laws include:

  • Expand the drug safety valve exception;
  • Allow inmates sentenced to life as juveniles to apply for parole;
  • Limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles;
  • Reduce the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted for gun possession offenses under the Armed Career Criminal Act to a mandatory minimum term of 10 years;
  • Reduce the 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for those who commit second or subsequent offenses of possessing guns in the course of drug trafficking offenses or crimes of violence to a mandatory minimum term of 15 years; and
  • Allow some prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs and use the credits for a transfer to a different type of supervision.

It remains to be seen if this bill will be put into law, but the fact that members of both political parties were able to put aside their differences to work on this effort is certainly encouraging. While this legislation would mean a great deal to people facing non-violent felony drug charges, it is somewhat disappointing that there were not similar efforts made to reduce the mandatory minimums for certain white collar crimes.

As a New York City criminal defense lawyer, I have regularly represented clients who were facing incredibly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for alleged crimes involving controlled substances. My first intention is always to investigate and determine all of the ways I might be able to get the criminal charges dismissed. When necessary, I try to negotiate a reduced sentence and determine the best resolution that results in the fewest possible penalties.

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New York Federal Judge Rules Stop-and-Frisk Program Unconstitutional

Judge Shira Sheindlin of the Federal District Court in Manhattan made a landmark decision in the stop-and-frisk controversy on Tuesday, January 8, 2013, by ruling that the practice was unconstitutional. Judge Sheindlen made the ruling in Ligon v. New York, which directly challenged the Operation Clean Halls or Trespass Affidavit Program (TAP) and is one of multiple cases challenging NYPD’s overall stop-and-frisk policy.

The judge said in her ruling that drawing the line between public safety and unconstitutionality may be difficult, but “the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx.” She called the stop-and-frisk policy a “threat” to residents of OCH/TAP buildings and their visitors. As a result, she ordered the police to halt any and all trespass stops that were not justified by reasonable suspicion – a legal standard that requires more than just entering or leaving a building, or moving quickly in or around it.

A hearing will be set to better determine the limits of the stop-and-frisk, and will probably require a specific NYPD policy that describes the designated circumstances in which a stop-and-frisk for trespassing will be legally permissible. Depending on the outcome of this hearing with NYPD, this ruling against the unreasonable TAP searches is a victory for the Fourth Amendment. Every citizen may have a right to reasonable public safety, but that does not mean that the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure should be forfeited.

Additionally, despite the claims that the suspicious stop-and-frisks were increasing the safety of specific neighborhoods while decreasing crime, the statistical evidence showed otherwise. During the recent 600% increase of stop-and-frisks, nine out of 10 of the suspects were adjudicated not guilty. The district attorney’s office even greatly reduced the number of stop-and-frisk cases it would prosecute due to the rising number of disturbing reports involving tenants and their legal guests being arrested outside their own buildings.

This suggests that the threat to safety which NYPD claims exists in and around these TAP buildings is either nonexistent or much smaller than previously implied. It could also mean the practice of stop-and-frisk is just plain ineffective. Regardless, one thing is clear: NYPD’s stop and frisk policy was unconstitutional and had no place in our city. Judge Scheindlin said in her ruling that “the public interest in liberty and dignity under the Fourth Amendment trumps whatever modicum of added safety might theoretically be gained from NYPD making unconstitutional trespass stops outside TAP buildings in theBronx.”

As a Queens criminal defense attorney, it’s part of my job to hold the line on civil liberties for my clients. Tuesday’s ruling is a victory for justice and a victory for civil liberties.

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Settlement with HSBC Shows Feds’ Real Priorities with “War on Drugs”

In New York City, every day, hundreds of people are arrested for possession of a controlled substance – Merely for having the narcotic on their person. The vast majority of these people only had it for their own personal use, and yet many of them wind up spending time in jail. Often, these are young people, and the conviction has harsh effects on the rest of their lives. This is all for our “War on Drugs”: Kids losing educational opportunities because they had a little bit of marijuana, mothers being taken away from their kids and put in jail because they had a few bumps of cocaine on them on a night out. If these mere users, who are, at worst, just harming themselves, can see their lives being ruined, what do the drug warriors in the federal government have in store for those who are part of major international operations to put these drugs on the street?

Well, apparently if you’re a banking executive who laundered billions of dollars for drug kingpins, you might expect to see your bonus “partially deferred.”

Make sure you read this excellent takedown, by Matt Taibbi of The Rolling Stone, of a settlement this month by the Department of Justice with British bank HSBC. HSBC admitted to laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels, breaking other banking laws in the process. By laundering the money, HSBC enabled the cartel kingpins to continue profitable operations. Yet, the DOJ apparently decided it was too important to our financial system to take down, so they let them off the hook with a $1.9 billion settlement — five weeks’ income for the company.

As a New York City drug defense lawyer, I often represent the people on the lowest levels of the drug trade, including its customers, the mere user. These are people who are tremendously important to their families, and many young people who are tremendously important to our nation’s future.  Yet, the government doesn’t seem to have any problem attempting to put those people in jail and making them suffer.

For years, I’ve said there is no way to win the War on Drugs, that there will never be a day when the United States can say it has “conquered” controlled substances. What is especially infuriating about this settlement is that it shows that, while still working to destroy the lives of everyday citizens and, often, decimating civil liberties, those in charge of prosecuting the Drug War aren’t even trying to go after the big guys. When virtually handed a victory over one of the major players in cartel operations, the feds slap them on the wrist. It’s unconscionable, and it needs to change, now.


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Governor Suspends Statute of Limitations After Hurricane Sandy

New York City and Long Island residents are spending a great deal of time nowadays reorganizing and recovering after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The last thing they need is to worry about the possibility of being prosecuted for something for which they were investigated months or even years ago. Because of an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, some New Yorkers will have to go about the business of putting their lives back together with the possibility of criminal prosecution hanging over their head.

Gov. Cuomo issued an executive order suspending the statute of limitations for all criminal prosecutions from October 26, 2012, until a date to be determined. Presumably, this will be afterNew Yorkcourts and prosecutors are able to keep their offices open and resume normal business, but there is no guarantee of when the suspension will be over.

The statute of limitations, for criminal matters, is a law prohibiting prosecutors from bringing charges against people after a certain amount of time has passed. Class A felonies, like murder, have no statute of limitations. Others, like certain financial and white collar crimes, have a statute of limitations that begin at the time the offense was discovered. For most crimes, however, there is a statute of limitations that runs from the time of the alleged offense. For most felonies, it’s five years. For most misdemeanors it’s two years and for most traffic infractions and other minor violations, it is one year.

For example, let’s say you were arrested on suspicion of selling 4 grams of pot on Halloween (October 31, 2010). However, you were not charged at the time because police had difficulty locating a witness, and continued to have difficulty tracking that person down. Under normal circumstances, if you were not charged by October 31, 2012, prosecutors could not legally press charges.

However, keeping with this example, the governor’s order meant that the statute of limitations was suspended six days before your charges were up. You can still be charged, and will be under continued threat of facing criminal prosecution until after the governor decides to reinstate the law.

Statutes of limitations are laws meant to give people peace of mind. If prosecutors can’t come with the evidence necessary to prosecute someone within a certain period of time, then everyone needs to move on. Peace of mind is something New Yorkers could use more of while we put our lives back together after Hurricane Sandy. Until the governor lifts the order, though, those waiting for the statute of limitations to run out on an old allegation will not get that peace of mind. If you’re in that position, you are best advised to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer so you’re ready.

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Multiple DWI Offenses Could Lead to Permanent License Loss


Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced new restrictions to make life tougher on New Yorkers with multiple Driving While Intoxicated convictions — their entire lives. The new rules permanently revoke the driver’s licenses of people convicted of multiple DWI offenses.

Before the law changed, if a driver’s license was revoked for DWI offenses, the driver could get his or her license back after a period of six months or more . The only permanent revocation was if the driver had two or more convictions of a DWI offense when an injury was involved.

Now, anyone who has five or more DWIs at any point in their life will never be able to get his or her license back. The same applies for anyone who has had three or more DWI convictions in the past 25 years and had one “serious driving offense.” A serious driving offense could include a fatal crash, 20 or more points on his or her license, or having two or more driving convictions in which five or more points were assessed. When a person with the requisite number of convictions applies for their license to be reinstated, the Department of Motor Vehicles will deny the application. if the driver had two or more convictions of a DWI offense when an injury was involved.

For those with three or four convictions but no serious driving offense, the DMV will add an additional five years to the statutory amount their license is revoked, or two years if the revocation was not related to an alcohol or drug offense. Once the license is returned, it will be a “restricted” license, limiting the driver to necessary trips, such as driving to work or medical visits. They will also be required to have an interlock on their ignition, testing breath for alcohol, for five years.

Such severe restrictions make hiring an experienced DWI defense attorney all the more important for New Yorkers accused of DWI — and not just if it would be their fifth conviction. When the DMV now reviews the records of people applying to have their license reinstated, it looks at their entire lifetime record. So, if someone is convicted of their fourth DWI now, and 30 years later is convicted of a fifth, that person’s license would be permanently revoked. Or, someone could be convicted today of his third DWI in five years and quit drinking. Cut to 20 years later — bad driving leads to 20 points on his record, and he is in danger of losing his license forever.

It’s more important now to keep DWI convictions off your record. Hiring a criminal defense attorney, if charged, is your best bet to make that happen.

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Queens Defense Attorney Discusses New York Domestic Violence Laws

The State of New York has tough laws concerning domestic violence. This is for good reason, with current statistics showing that 432 individual acts of domestic violence occur daily. Of these attacks, four will be deadly. This prevalence of situations that include domestic violence has created an environment of fear and anxiety for many. Unfortunately, there are also instances where an individual may be wrongfully accused of domestic violence, which has the potential to create major issues regarding their social, professional and financial well-being.

Understanding the domestic violence laws currently being enforced will give you a stronger knowledge of what these crimes entail. It will also allow for a basis of comprehension that could protect you from the stigmatizing status that comes with a domestic violence allegation.

Types of Domestic Violence in New York

Of all the domestic violence laws, four of the most common include assault, menacing, harassment and stalking. All four of these statutes are found within the New York Penal Law:

Assault – A person is guilty of assault if, with the intent to cause physical injury to another person: he or she causes such injury to that person; he or she recklessly causes physical injury to that person; or with criminal negligence, he or she causes physical injury to the other person by means of a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument. Assault will commonly be charged as a class A misdemeanor (§120.00).

Menacing – A person will be charged with criminal menacing if he or she intentionally places or attempts to place another person in reasonable fear of physical injury, imminent serious physical injury or death. This is commonly a class B misdemeanor offense. If the menacing is done with the use of a deadly weapon, the allegation will be considered a class A misdemeanor. For individuals who have been previously convicted of menacing within the preceding ten years, they will be charged with a class E felony (§120.15).

Harassment and Aggravated Harassment – Harassment will be charged if a person intentionally and repeatedly harasses another person by following them in or around a public place or by engaging in a course of conduct which places that person in reasonable fear for physical injury (§240.26).

Aggravated harassment occurs when an individual, with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, communicates with them by telephone or written communication in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; makes phone calls without a legitimate purpose; strikes, shoves, kicks or otherwise subjects the person to physical contact or threatens to do the same because of race, color, religion or gender; or commits the crime of harassment after having been convicted in the preceding ten years.

Stalking – A person is guilty of stalking when he or she intentionally engages in conduct directed at a specific person, and knows that this conduct is: likely to cause reasonable fear or material harm to the physical health, safety or property of that person; causes material harm to the mental or emotional health of another, through telephoning or initiating communication or contact with them; or is likely to cause that person to reasonably fear that his or her employment, business or career is threatened through telephoning or initiating communication or contact at that person’s place of business. Stalking charges can vary from class B misdemeanors to class E Felonies.

 NYC Domestic Violence Courts

As a way to increase efficiency and organization, the criminal courts located within New York City have specific divisions that focus solely on domestic violence cases. These courts emerged following a response to the frustration victim advocates and judges had about the same litigants going through the justice system repeatedly. Not only does this improve the process, it also takes into account victim safety and defendant accountability. These Courts are located Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island.Queens County operates the Domestic Violence Complexes, which include an “all-purpose” section, a “trial” section, and a “compliance” section.

The DV court has created a way to process these charges by ordering the person accused to comply with various demands that are closely observed by judges. Some of the primary requirements for those within the domestic violence courts include, among others:

-Attending batterer intervention and/or anger management classes

-Drug and alcohol abuse counseling

-Mental health counseling

-Parenting skills programs

Those who do not comply with their specified requirements will be sent back to the original judge for what is termed, “appropriate action.” These actions will likely be punitive in nature with the possibility of being thrown in jail.

Considering that the judges and prosecutors who alleged offenders face in these special courts are primarily focused on resolving DV cases, it is important to have a New York criminal defense attorney who understands domestic violence laws and can help you navigate the complex legal landscape involved.



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Queens Criminal Defense Attorney Discusses New York Juvenile Offender Pilot Program

Taking a step towards developing a truly practical and effective justice system for youth offenders, the state of New York has started an experimental juvenile court pilot program, called “Adolescent Diversion.” Although still under legislative consideration, the Youth Division bill, which contains the details of the new process, has become a beacon of hope for those who want to fix the inefficiency and punitive nature of the current process.

This rethinking of youth offender criminal protocol is quite topical now, considering it is appearing at the same time as a landmark Supreme Court decision, which has drawn a line in the sand, distinguishing teenage offenders from adult criminals. The high court ruling dictated that automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Although New York is focusing on nonviolent juvenile offenders as opposed to convicted felons, there has been a strong paradigm shift recently to revise what seems to be a broken juvenile criminal system.

Set up earlier this year, the Adolescent Diversion pilot program was created as a way to provide non-traditional methods of youth justice for 16 and 17-year old nonviolent offenders. As law currently stands in New York, you only have to be sixteen years of age to be tried as an adult, meaning that sixteen and seventeen year olds can potentially be subject to prosecution which meets fullest extent of the law. This makes New York one of only two states in America that has such a low age requirement, with the other being North Carolina.

What the program in question does is allow juveniles to bypass the regular criminal court system and go through a process that focuses on communication and rehabilitation. As for the process involved, one of the major changes is that the judge is able to speak directly to teens, as opposed to a cold, hands-off process that has alienated countless youth. Making the young adults active participants, along with encouraging parents to attend, allows the criminal process to be less antagonistic for youth who are still learning their place in society.

The pilot program encourages judges to confer with New York criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and coordinators from the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership that tests alternative criminal justice solutions. In order to find the most relevant treatment options, the youths are screened for potential risk factors to assess what the best course of action may be. This puts the juveniles in a position most suited for their personal situation, allowing them to learn from their mistakes through a focused plan of treatment.

Not only does the Adolescent Diversion program enable judges to engage youth in a more helpful and personal manner, it also keeps many young people away from probation, which would otherwise show up on their permanent record, an issue that could limit future employment and educational opportunities. Many New York City judges and legislators have been very happy with the initial results, but also know that more time is needed to see if it is truly an effective alternative, particularly when it comes to the issue of recidivism.

As it currently stands, recidivism in New York is at 40% within three years of release. Considering nations such as Norway, where rehabilitation is touted as their primary concern, have recidivism of below 20%, the practice seems to be gaining ground stateside. The particular treatments involved in the program, which can range from substance abuse courses to art programs, have already brought about some positive results. In fact, a treatment and community service center in Brooklyn has seen compliance rates of 80%, which is much higher than the average rate with the old requirements in place.

From a subjective standpoint, it seems likely that taking a greater interest in those accused of a juvenile offense will give that young person more of an incentive to follow the rules and consider their actions. We all know that teen’s will likely rebel when approached in a demeaning or cold manner, so taking the opposite approach would seem to be a strong alternative. Although we still have to be tough in our approach, the importance of doing so intelligently is paramount.

If introduced on a statewide scale, this program will surely require taxpayer money and work that is more exhaustive by those involved, considering the additional attention required. From a short-term perspective, the logistics and costs could be hard to rationalize from those with an austere outlook on public spending, but when you look long-term, and see that many of these young adults are learning from their mistakes and engaging in a process, rather than being shuffled through like just another number, this option becomes much more attractive. Human capital, similar to business venture, is predicated on smart investing, so if undertaken in the proper manner, these will likely pay for themselves.

It finally seems as though citizens, judges and legislators are becoming aware of the huge amounts of public funds wasted on the imprisonment of convicted criminals. Our justice system has become bloated, inefficient, unfair and reactive. For-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentences and aggressive drug policy has slowly turned our society into a creeping police state that profits from crime while offering no alternatives for those convicted. Information, rehabilitation and rationalization will free us from the vicious cycle that has developed from shortsightedness and aggression.

Those responsible for this pilot program should be applauded for their forward thinking, rational mindset, and interest in providing a learning experience for those who are still growing and developing their worldview. At this point, the legislation itself has stalled in state congress, leaving it in no-man’s land until 2013. The reasoning is monetary in nature, with the worry of costs on the forefront of certain legislator’s minds. Even so, Richard Aborn, president of the non-profit Citizen Crimes Commission, which seeks to improve New York’s criminal justice system, said legislators had not objected to the substance of the bill, which bodes well for its eventual fate. “I think there is a growing consensus that these sorts of interventions with young offenders are effective in steering them away from a life in crime.” Hopefully New York lawmakers will eventually agree.

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Queens Criminal Defense Attorney Discusses Recent Stop-and-Frisk Appeals

July in New York has been an eventful time concerning the controversial stop-and-frisk procedures taking place. Although the practice has been in effect for some time now, added controversy has arisen recently with two felony gun convictions stemming from an initial stop-and-frisk being overturned by a New York Appeals Court.

The Appeals Court ruling was entered a month after a Manhattan federal judge allowed a class action suit regarding the divisive procedure to move forward. This appeal was the resulting action following the conviction of a 14 year-old who was found in possession of a loaded gun after being stopped by police because they observed him putting ‘an object’ into his backpack. Although convicted as a juvenile, the presiding judge conceded that a felony firearm conviction can lead to over 3 years in state prison (§265.03) if he were tried as an adult, making the stakes quite high for individuals in similar situations. The appellate panel overturned the August 2010 decision, and in doing so, struck a major blow to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program.

The program itself is used as a crime deterrent by allowing police officers to stop and search individuals in areas of high rates of crime. The procedure does require “reasonable suspicion” but many opponents say that a large proportion of the stops are done in a manner that erases your fourth amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The appeals case asserted that reasonable suspicion could not be formed based on the officer’s observations because they conceded that the object bore no obvious hallmarks of a weapon. The ruling statement was written by Justice Angela M. Mazzarelli, who also stated that, “there were no other objective indicia of criminality because there were plausible, non-criminal reasons for appellant’s behavior.” The dissension arguments to the ruling included that the circumstances justified the initial questioning of the teen based on common law and that questioning provided police with reasonable suspension that the teen was illegally carrying a gun.

Although the procedure of stop-and-frisk has likely prevented some crimes from occurring, due to the proactive and aggressive nature of the police force and the commonality of the procedure, it is still a flawed and worrisome crime prevention technique. The process simply provides more negative ramifications to the justice system than potential positives. Not only does law enforcement have more power than it should in these circumstances, but the individual liberties that people have understood to be inherent are being slowly dissolved by this ever more belligerent stance on preventing crime.

Unless there is a foolproof manner of stopping crime before it happens, a stop-and-frisk edict will only serve to complicate the legal system and divert huge amounts of state resources going through multiple trials and appeals. With more New York criminal defense attorneys appealing rulings and a large amount being ultimate overturning by higher courts, it would be in New York State’s best interest to find ways to improve its search techniques or abolish them altogether.

The current statistics are alarming, with 685,724 people stopped and frisked in 2011. This is a 600% increase since Mayor Bloomberg took office. Nine out of ten of the individuals stopped were proven innocent, without being arrested or ticketed, and 87% of those stopped were Black or Latino. A quick glance at these numbers shows an inefficiency that costs taxpayers money and diverts resources and manpower that could be used for more legitimate examples of criminal suspicion.

Evolving the process is always necessary in any aspect of life, particularly in such a sensitive area as criminal justice. New York has a great deal of work ahead of it to fix the current issues with its stop-and-frisk policies and develop an effective response to crime and crime prevention.


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Queens Drug Attorney Discusses Difficulties for Andrew Cuomo’s Pot Decriminalization Plan

It looks as though New Yorkers will have to wait until the state legislature reconvenes in January to see any progress made in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to decriminalize marijuana in the state. Hoping to turn this bill into law by the end of the 2012 legislative session, Governor Cuomo has been thwarted by GOP opposition who believe the law goes too far.

The bill in question aims to reduce the penalty for public possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation, bringing with it a fine as opposed to an arrest. This has become a hot topic after the controversial stop and frisk enforcement became a huge individual rights debate. Shown to disproportionately target Hispanic and black males, the search process creates a sticky situation when marijuana is found. Private possession is only a violation, but when the targeted individual is forced to open his pockets during a search, that may or may not have been due to suspicion of drug use, the possession is now public, making it an arrestable misdemeanor offense.

The decriminalization bill would not only have reduced prison population and arrest rates, saving the city a great deal of public funds, it would also serve to create a more equitable environment for those being targeted by these unwarranted searches. Unfortunately, these potential positive outcomes have been ignored, along with the bill itself.

At this point in time, the state ofNew Yorkwill have to wait until January to revisit this bill, unless Governor Cuomo calls a special session, which is highly unlikely. The main reason behind the opposition to the bill is that lawmakers believe that it will lead to flaunting the law. Rep. Dean Skelos even commented, “Being able to just walk around with 10 joint in each ear, and it only be a violation, I think that’s wrong.”

This quote shows a great deal about the current leadership in place. It is both overstating the potential problems (who would ever walk around with 10 joints in each ear?) and shows an obvious personal motive on the subject, with his use of “I” as opposed “my constituents.” Rep. Skelos and the rest of the GOP are simply obstructing the natural evolution of law and justice by denying even the prospect for debate about whether marijuana should be legalized.

So, for the time being, a criminal possession of marijuana charge in New York Citywill still be considered a class B misdemeanor, which comes with a presumptive sentence of up to three months in jail and up to $500 in fines. With a New York criminal defense attorney, these penalties could possibly be mitigated, but the issue still remains.

In continuing to enforce these penalties, the state of New York will continue to degrade the trust between law enforcement and the community, along with leaving many otherwise decent human beings with permanent criminal records and increased chances for recidivism.

Hopefully by January, the New York State Legislature will be more informed on this issue and leave ideological stances on the sidelines so there can be a rational debate about whether marijuana should be decriminalized.

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Queens Criminal Defense Attorney Discusses Governors Call to Decriminalize Marijuana

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State, has recently detailed his interest in reducing the penalty for public possession of small amounts of marijuana. This is a strong stance by one of the most influential politicians in New York and has the potential to help many individuals throughout the state who have been charged with possession of marijuana.

The proposal could not have come at a better time for the governor when his New York City Police Department has been under extreme scrutiny for its controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Although it may seem that a call for decriminalization would simply rebalance the injustice that the search policy has produced, it is a step in the right direction that will bring with it many positive outcomes in the future and may spur other states to follow suit.

Specifically, the bill will reduce a possession charge from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation. The rationale behind this is geared towards protecting individual rights, while also  ensuring that certain individuals who are frisked will not be unjustly charged with a crime that would not have been the case without the search.

For a little background on this statement, you need to understand that “private” possession of marijuana is  considered a violation in New York, whereas “public” possession is a misdemeanor. If an officer frisks you and demands that you open your pockets, and you have marijuana in them, the scenario immediately changes from private possession to public, simply by having the substance in view. Without explicit suspicion of drug use, this procedure creates a slippery slope of potential rights abuse that unjustly affects many individuals. It commonly forces them into a position that ensures increased charges, even though they may not have had any intent whatsoever to possess the marijuana in “public.”

This deceptive practice is a tactic that many officers have been using since the stop-and-frisk policy went into effect, and Gov. Cuomo seems to have realized that it will develop into a major issue if the root of the cause is not dealt with. Even though some of this decriminalization may be, in part, a response to an overly aggressive law enforcement technique, the precedent it sets is good for individuals and society in general.

Not only will the decriminalization keep New York jails from overcrowding on a daily basis, it will also allow for the police department to divert their attention to more serious crimes that have a defined negative effect on society. It will also benefit the disproportionate nature of drug arrests, which have consistently shown Hispanics and blacks being unfairly targeted. The stop-and-frisk policy has drawn a deep racial line in the sand, with minorities carrying the brunt of the added invasiveness. This decriminalization will help remedy this inherent injustice, although the search policy itself needs to be revised as well.

Gov. Cuomo should be applauded for his new stance. Marijuana users have no place among actual criminals.  Exposing them to that environment puts them at a high risk of assimilating criminal behavior, causing the recidivism that has become rampant in a corrections system that irrationally focuses all of its resources on punishing the inmates rather than rehabilitating them.

Jailing marijuana users only makes our society more fragile by creating an environment of fear, stress and animosity between law enforcement and the rest of society. A decriminalization will help remedy these issues and brings us closer to a truly efficient justice system, something that the forefathers of our country have wanted all along.

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