By Brett Gillin
If you’re planning a trip to New York City in the future, the good news is it might be a whole lot easier to find a bathroom. The bad news is that bathroom just might be the entirety of New York City, at least if the City Council gets its wish. A proposed change to the way the city operates would decriminalize a host of “quality-of-life offenses,” making them civil matters rather than criminal ones. In essence, this means that if you want to slam down a six-pack in public, then relieve yourself in the middle of the street, you’re not risking going to jail, only having to pay a fine.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, the New York City Council Speaker, announced plans earlier this year to decriminalize six “low-level” offenses: public urination, public consumption of alcohol, biking on the sidewalk, being in a park after dark, failure to obey a park sign, and jumping subway turnstiles. Each of these offenses would turn from criminal to civil, meaning police would no longer have the authority to arrest violators of these laws.
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is staunchly against the new plan, telling reporters that people simply don’t take civil tickets seriously. “I’m not supportive of the idea of civil summonses for these offenses because I think that they’d be basically totally ignored, that they don’t have any bite to them, if you will,” Bratton told the Council during a hearing, according to the New York Daily News.
According to a study done by the Daily News, these six offenses make up roughly 42% of all summonses issued by the NYPD between 2001 and 2014. In addition, these offenses count for more than 510,000 open arrest warrants. Because each of these offenses fall under New York City’s administrative code, rather than the penal code, the council can amend them to civil infractions without approval from the state.
“It would be akin to a parking ticket, which I think would be more than enough to deter people from committing that kind of conduct without bringing the heavy hammer of the criminal justice system down on their head,” City Councilman Rory Lancman told reporters.
To illustrate Bratton’s stance against these changes is a relatively high-profile case. Earlier this month, Damien Brunson, a 32 year old man, jumped a turnstile in a New York subway station. Because that is still technically a criminal offense, Brunson was detained by police and searched, according to the Daily News. Police found out that Brunson was an ex-con and discovered a gun in his backpack. Now Brunson is facing 10 years in prison on federal charges. This would not have happened had Brunson only been guilty of a civil offense when he allegedly decided not to pay the subway fare.
But proponents of the changes say that decriminalizing these acts would free up a host of police resources to do more productive work. According to statistics gathered by the Daily News, nearly half of all summonses that the NYPD have issued since 2001 have been dismissed when they made it to court. Still, Bratton and many NYPD officer feel that focusing on these “quality of life” offenses is vitally important, as they often lead to the reduction of more serious crimes, as illustrated in the Brunson case.