Getting Busted in New York
May 26 2013
In most places in the world, weed is still an illegal substance. But despite that illegality, some law enforcers tolerate it’s use. An understanding exists between weed smokers and many police: as long as you’re discreet about it, you won’t get hauled in for smoking a joint.
Before I came to New York, I lived in Philadelphia where I was perceived by the Philly PD as a “college student” and also “probably not black,” which meant that I could freely smoke anywhere in the city and get away with it. Blazing while in transit was nothing. When I took the subway at night, I would walk down to the far end of the platform and smoke the half a blunt from earlier in the night while waiting. When I got a car, I had a little chillum that permanently sat in plain view in my beverage holder. At some point my mom witnessed my carelessness, which led to a running debate about how much trouble my overt smoking could actually cause me. That ended when I was in a car with her and our realtor, a former Philly cop, and a waft of blunt smoke flowed in through an open window as we cruised through South Philly. The realtor made light of it with a chuckle. My mom turned to him and said, “Steve, my son smokes marijuana. Can he get busted for that?” Before I could say, “What the hell, ma!?” Steve gave her a definitive no. “No cop is going to bust a kid just for smoking unless he wants to be a dick.”
As we all know, lots of cops want to be dicks, especially in the suburbs where they’re bored, but the recent tangible shift in the American public’s perception of weed and weed-related penalties tells us that most people don’t think you should really get in trouble for smoking a small amount. That is, unless you live in New York.
Before I moved here, I knew it was over. Along with all the other quality of life laws that have kept New York lovely since Broken Windows policy came into effect in the 90s, smoking weed remains an arrestable offense. What’s the point of a beautifully maintained public park if you can’t smoke weed in it?
As the rest of the country warms up to the idea of legal marijuana, our biggest and awesomest city remains the narc at the party. Not only will New York cops bust you if they happen upon you while you’re smoking, they actively patrol in paddy wagons looking to pick up actual drug criminals alongside poor souls just trying to sneak in a couple of puffs. That’s what happened to my friend Judy Runt. Her story is a typical one, except that she managed to snap off several photos on the day of her hearing. Let it be known, this is what happens when you get caught smoking in New York.
I'll start off by saying I've been a regular marijuana smoker for 12 years. I smoke three to five times a week, sometimes every day, and I use it to help manage stress and migraine headaches. I have no previous convictions or criminal record. I'm also self-employed and work in the photo industry. On April 19th, 2013 around 3 PM, I stepped outside of my studio in the industrial section of Greenpoint for a smoke break. Just as I had taken a hit, two undercover narcotics detectives approached me. They had been watching me with binoculars from a navy blue undercover van. I didn't put up a fight and willingly handed over my one-hitter and weed.
Right off the bat, they were apologetic, insisting that they wouldn't usually waste their time bringing me in for a weed ticket, but because they had a quota to fill, their sergeant was going to order that they place me under arrest. At that point, they ran a background check and cuffed me, saying they were going to try to make me as comfortable as possible. I had to sit handcuffed in the back of a windowless paddy wagon for three hours while they drove around baiting and arresting actual drug dealers. When we arrived at the precinct I was placed in a gender-separated cell for another two hours. Throughout the entire fingerprinting and mugshot process, I was surprised at the attitude the officers were taking towards me. They were actually being nice, making small talk about my work, googling my website, and giving me candy and cigarettes through the bars. Maybe they were just flirting. Either way, I was repeatedly told that my arrest was "not a big deal" and that the case would get thrown out as an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal) so long as I don't get arrested again for six months. I received a Desk Appearance Ticket, stating that I MUST APPEAR in court on May 22nd, 2013.
On that day, I arrived at the downtown Brooklyn courthouse on Schermerhorn Street right on time, 9:30 Am. There were already hundreds of people there waiting to get called to the bench. I did my best to sneak off some photos while one thug youth after another got called up for "Marijuana ACD." There were juvenile delinquents, businessmen, elderly ladies, and all types of pothead humanity in court that day. My public defender didn't even get my file until 1 PM, at which point the court had to break for lunch and I was told to come back. By 3 PM I was one of the last people in the courtroom, and was told that my file "slipped through the cracks" because someone transcribed my name wrong. The judge looked like he could not care less that I had been waiting all day and hardly looked up as he mumbled the familiar ten-second spiel dismissing the case under the circumstance that I not get arrested for the next year (not six months as the cops had said). The whole ordeal was a waste of almost 12 hours of my life I will never get back in addition to some bruises from the handcuffs and the trauma of being detained like a criminal. Was it really not a big deal?
Shitty right? And this isn’t nearly the worst story I’ve heard. If you’re unlucky enough to be caught blazing on Friday night, you could be in booking until Monday. You’d think that in a big city the cops would have something better to do than hassle people smoking one-hitters on the street, and the truth is they probably do.
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