Council poised to pass bills routing minor offenses out of criminal courts

Under new guidelines for low-level offenses, the No. 1 question in New York City might just be how to pee in public without exposing your private parts.

The City Council is expected to pass a legislative package Wednesday that will steer nonviolent infractions such as urinating in public, breaking park rules and having an open container of alcohol in public from the criminal to the civil system. Lawmakers have long argued that criminal consequences are too harsh for these infractions. In particular, officials crafted the legislation to ensure the federal government will no longer consider these so-called quality-of-life convictions when weighing immigration status decisions.

The legislation, which has Mayor Bill de Blasio’s backing, also aims to streamline some of the administrative codes and rules governing minor offenses. The bills wrangle with measures most New Yorkers have never heard of (spitting in a park is currently punishable by up to 10 days in prison) and issue more modern sanctions (the maximum sentence for spitting would be one day).

Still, some aspects of the city’s qualify-of-life enforcement plan remain ambiguous. The measures propose treating public urination as a violation that comes with a penalty of up to one day in prison. But a series of proposed changes meant to deter more serious misbehavior in parks would make indecent exposure a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in prison. Neither de Blasio’s office nor the Police Department responded when asked how often public urination occurs without private parts being exposed, or how that might be accomplished. Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Vanessa Gibson’s office, however, said indecent exposure generally involves incidents of a sexual nature, in which urination is not the goal.

More than a year ago, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito sparked a debate about appropriate punishments for minor offenses when she said the city should stop bringing criminal charges against those caught jumping subway turnstiles without paying the fare. She contended that it was overly punitive for defendants in these cases to end up in jail because they could not afford bail. And she argued the policy resulted in a poor deployment of city resources, since many offenders fail to appear in court and then have warrants issued for their arrest.

Initially, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton and some lawmakers expressed concerns that police could be hamstrung if they lost the ability to pursue criminal charges, and that New Yorkers may not take civil fines seriously. But after more than a year of negotiations, the council is slated to vote on eight bills – collectively called the Criminal Justice Reform Act – which would require the NYPD to develop criteria instructing officers to rely on civil summonses in most situations, but would still give police the ability to pursue criminal charges when they believe they’re appropriate.

“For too long, New York’s criminal justice system has been broken – it’s time we fix it,” Mark-Viverito said in a statement this week. “The Criminal Justice Reform Act is going to continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also creating a more fair and just system that will ensure the penalties fit the crime.”

The legislation limits penalties to no more than one day for having an open container of alcohol in public, littering, public urination, breaking park rules and making unreasonable noise, according to Gibson’s office. Trimming the penalties for these offenses would also mitigate deportation and immigration concerns for those convicted. It’s rare for New Yorkers to get sentenced to prison for biking on the sidewalk or drinking in public, but the city’s codes do allow for sentences of up to 15 days for some minor offenses. And the federal government views any infraction that carries a potential penalty of more than five days as a misdemeanor, which means those convicted of quality-of-life violations in the city could have such convictions count against them when applying for the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or facing deportation.

The council estimates the measures will divert more than 100,000 cases from the criminal court system and avoid the issuance of close to 50,000 warrants annually. The NYPD’s warrant squad only actively pursues felony warrants, meaning police only arrest those with warrants stemming from misdemeanors or violations if they stop an individual for a different reason and then learn about the warrant, according to a City Council committee report published in advance of a February hearing on the legislation.

During that hearing, Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Director Elizabeth Glazer said the city had a “high” and “troubling” warrant rate of 40 percent because defendants often failed to show up to court. Glazer noted that only about a quarter of criminal summonses processed by the courts in 2014 ended in a conviction. And she echoed some council members’ claims that dealing with warrants can be expensive both for those who are arrested and must miss work and for the city, because it diverts police away from more serious public safety threats.

At the time, Councilmen James Vacca, Andrew Cohen and Vincent Gentile raised concerns about the city having a million outstanding warrants, with many pending for extensive periods of time. “So why are we not correcting the problem?” Vacca asked administration officials at the hearing. “You have warrants issued that don’t mean the paper they’re written on, and yet we are now going to transfer that jurisdiction to (the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings), an agency that for years has been ineffective.”

Although it’s likely some council members remain opposed to the legislation, at least one lawmaker said he’d been convinced by subsequent amendments. Gentile said he now believes routing low-level offenses to the civil system could help police concentrate on cutting down the warrant backlog, reduce congestion in the criminal courts and hold New Yorkers accountable.

“I’m satisfied now that they’ve allowed for, in cases of nonpayment of the fine, that OATH can add a penalty to the fine of up to 150 percent of the fine. And if the offender continues not to pay, then the default would result in a civil judgement, which would go to the Department of Finance. So there is a mechanism set up to track somebody down if they do not pay,” Gentile said. “And the police will still retain the option to go a criminal route, and that’s a key thing in my book.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that a City Council spokesman did not respond when asked how often public urination occurs without private parts being exposed, or how that might be accomplished. That question was not posed to the City Council. 

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