NEW YORK — In a single morning, city courts Wednesday threw out over 640,000 warrants for people who didn’t show up in court or pay fines after being ticketed for minor offenses years ago.
The move — requested by prosecutors and hailed by the mayor — marks a sweeping step in city officials’ efforts to promote what they see as a more fair and workable approach to low-level offenses. But one of the city’s five district attorneys said the dismissals sent a problematic signal about law-breaking.
Applause broke out among politicians, clergy members and others gathered in a Brooklyn courtroom after 143,532 warrants there were cleared in no longer than it took Criminal Court Judge Frederick Arriaga to say: “The court will grant the motion to dismiss each case for the furtherance of justice.”
“Someone who owes a $25 fine should not be arrested and brought down to central booking and spend 20 or 24 hours in a cell next to a hardened criminal. That’s not fair, and that’s not justice,” acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said after going to court himself to make the request and highlight the occasion, as did Bronx DA Darcel Clark and Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. Queens DA Richard Brown’s office also participated.
But Staten Island DA Michael McMahon steered clear.
“I believe that issuing blanket amnesty for these offenses is unfair to those citizens who responsibly appear in court and sends the wrong message about the importance of respecting our community and our laws,” he said in a statement, noting that he’s supported initiatives that invite people to appear in person to clear their records. All five DAs are Democrats.
The warrants date back a decade or longer and stem from summonses for nonviolent, small-scale offenses such as littering, open-container drinking, being in a park after hours or walking an unleashed dog.
Many people didn’t realize a warrant had been issued, officials said. Sometimes, people find out only when an encounter with police — after a fender-bender, for instance, or even while reporting a crime — turns into an arrest when an officer checks their ID. For others, the warrants pop up as roadblocks during applications for jobs, housing or public benefits.
They’re “law-abiding New Yorkers who committed a petty offense years ago and have not been in trouble with the law since,” Vance said in asking a court to toss more than 240,000 warrant cases. Clark said scrapping nearly 160,000 Bronx warrants was “simply the right thing to do.”
The prosecutors and Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio also argued that arrests on such warrants tie up police time that could be better spent addressing more serious offenses.
Some other U.S. cities, from Atlanta to Las Vegas, have offered people the chance to clear up certain old warrants, often by paying fines.