Drug Law

How the NYPD Tricks People Into Admitting Pot Possession

| by Reason Foundation

Last year I wrote a column inspired by a New York Civil Liberties Union report about the Big Apple's "little-noticed crackdown on pot smokers." Yesterday a co-author of that report, Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine, published an article on Alternet that describes how police trick people carrying small amounts of marijuana, which is not an arrestable offense in New York, into revealing it, which is:

NYPD commanders direct officers to stop and question many young people and make arrests for possessing "contraband." In 2008, the NYPD made more than half a million recorded stop and frisks and an unknown number of unrecorded stops, disproportionately in black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods. By far, the most common contraband young people might possess is a small amount of marijuana.

According to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, police are allowed to thoroughly pat down the outside of someone's clothing looking for a gun, which is bulky and easy to detect. But police cannot legally search inside a person's pockets and belongings without permission or probable cause.

However, police officers can legally make false statements to people they stop, and officers can trick people into revealing things. So in a stern, authoritative voice, NYPD officers will say to the young people they stop:

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This judge looked an inmate square in the eyes and did something that left the entire courtroom in tears:

"We're going to have to search you. If you have anything illegal you should show it to us now. If we find something when we search you, you'll have to spend the night in jail. But if you show us what you have now, maybe we can just give you a ticket. And if it's nothing but a little weed, maybe we can let you go. So if you've got anything you're not supposed to have, take it out and show it now."

When police say this, the young people usually take out their small amount of marijuana and hand it over. Their marijuana is now "open to public view." And that - having a bit of pot out and open to be seen - technically makes it a crime, a fingerprintable offense. And for cooperating with the police, the young people are handcuffed and jailed.

Levine adds that "since 1997 the NYPD has used this procedure to make tens of thousands of marijuana arrests a year, averaging about a hundred a day," which is "more than ten times the average number of marijuana arrests the City made previously." Although "New York is extreme in the number of its marijuana arrests," he says, other cities—including Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Antonio—"are also making pot possession arrests and jailings at high rates, often using the same techniques as the NYPD."