At a New York City Council hearing on summons court operations and impact, the New York Civil Liberties Union will today testify in support of reforming the system for issuing and processing summonses and urge the Council to re-consider the city’s aggressive enforcement of non-criminal offenses, which has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

“The aggressive enforcement of low-level violations and infractions only in communities of color has dramatically diminished the ability of people to trust and respect the police, making all New Yorkers less safe,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “The chokehold death of Eric Garner after a confrontation around the alleged sale of illegal cigarettes shows just how easily a confrontation over a minor offense can have devastating – even deadly – consequences.”

For more than a decade the NYPD has focused on aggressively enforcing low-level violations and infractions, issuing hundreds of thousands of summonses each year to New Yorkers for non-criminal, quality of life violations such as riding a bike on a sidewalk or consuming alcohol in public. These tactics have been a corner stone of the “broken windows” policing that consistently targets majority black and Latino neighborhoods.

Despite the failure of the NYPD to consistently record demographic information of summons recipients, available information paints a clear picture of persistent discrimination. Of the more than 6 million summonses issued between 2002 and 2013, the NYCLU has obtained demographic information for 1.5 million. Within this sample, nearly 85 percent of summons recipients were black or Latino.

These citations require fines, court fees and in-person court appearances requiring an individual to take off from work or school and/or find alternative childcare or eldercare arrangements. The loss of wages, coupled with the expense of fines and court fees can be particularly devastating to anyone living paycheck to paycheck.

Further collateral consequences can be far reaching, causing severe disruptions to recipients’ lives that are far out of proportion to the minor nature of the infraction ranging from eviction from public housing to employment discrimination, and even deportation.

The sheer volume of summonses issued each year places a tremendous strain on the courts and on the overall fairness of the proceedings, making for a severely dysfunctional system. In 2013, there were 458,095 summonses issued throughout the city, with 349,585 ultimately being scheduled for in-person arraignments. Summons courts are characterized by long lines and significant wait times. There is no guaranteed right to counsel in summons court, and even in those cases where defendants are able to secure counsel, lawyers are so overburdened by their caseloads that their discussions with clients regarding the merits of their cases often last less than 30 seconds.

Rather than attempting to enforce low-level violations through the issuance of improper or insufficient summonses, law enforcement resources would be better spent targeting more serious crimes. The following are among the recommendations offered to the Council for reforming the issuance and processing summonses in New York City and for reforming the NYPD’s approach to enforcement of low-level violations:

  • The NYPD Must Shift Away from Broken Windows Policing and Make Use of Alternatives to Criminal Court Summonses. Many of the most commonly charged summons offenses can be cited and enforced outside the criminal court context.
  • Eliminate Summonses in Schools. During the 2012-2013 school year, the School Safety Division of the NYPD issued more than three summonses every day in public schools. By requiring young people to miss a day of school to answer a summons, the NYPD is both over-charging and under-serving New York’s students.
  • Explore Options for Pleading by Mail to Non-Criminal Charges. This would ensure a more efficient use of the courts limited resources, eliminate the inconveniences inherent in having to attend an in-person arraignment, and reduce the number of New Yorkers who are issued bench warrants for failure to appear. While the collateral consequences for some charges may make it inadvisable for people to plead by mail, other charges can be returnable to non-criminal forums to eliminate the burden of spending a day in court.
  • Encourage the State Legislature to Pass a Cite and Release Law. The NYCLU recommends that New York State pass legislation requiring officers to issue only summonses or appearance tickets for violation-level offenses. Violations are not crimes, and arresting people for low-level, quality of life offenses is an inefficient use of resources, contributes to overcrowded jails, and further strains relationships between police officers and the communities they serve.
  • Pass a Data Transparency Law. While the limited data and anecdotes from advocates suggests a discriminatory pattern in the enforcement of summons offenses, the true extent of the racial disparities will remain unknown so long as the NYPD and the courts are not required to capture and disclose demographic data. New Yorkers are entitled to know the impact that police practices have on our family, friends and community members.