New York City Council May Ease Enforcement of Laws on Public Urination

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Speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito speaks at a press conference on Oct. 28, 2014, in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • Cops would have discretion to issue civil or criminal summons
  • Law would also reduce penalties for public drinking, littering

Urinating and drinking in public would no longer be treated as crimes under a package of bills New York’s City Council will consider to ease enforcement of quality-of-life offenses that lawmakers say clog the courts and have been disproportionately enforced against minorities.

The council scheduled a Jan. 25 hearing on the proposed laws, which are supported by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a majority of her 50 colleagues and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The proposal would remove the possibility of permanent criminal records for public urination and violating park rules, mostly treating them as civil offenses, along with public drinking, littering and excessive noise.

Such low-level offenses have left the city with more than 1.2 million active warrants, according to a fact sheet distributed by the council Wednesday. 

Bratton agreed to support the proposed laws after extensive negotiations with council members, the mayor and “other concerned partners in the New York City criminal justice system,” said Stephen Davis, a police spokesman. The bills represent “a fair and operationally reasonable way to address many of the issues,” he said in an e-mail.

“Our direct input has been considered instrumental and well-received,” Davis said.

The commissioner has been a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of criminology, which holds that minor breakdowns of law create the sense that a neighborhood’s social adhesion has come apart, leading to more serious transgressions. He has sparred with the council over the issue, and insisted that police retain power to charge people criminally if their conduct warrants it.

According to a City Council policy memorandum prepared for its members, the laws’ intent is to “ bring penalties in line with offenses and drastically reduce the number of warrants, all while maintaining a meaningful and proportional enforcement of quality of life offenses.” The police department would retain control over when officers should issue a civil or criminal penalty for public urination or park-rules violations, each of which are crimes under state law, according to the bills.

De Blasio and Bratton last year stopped arresting people for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana. The mayor, who doesn’t usually take an official position on pending or proposed legislation, supported its goals in a statement e-mailed by Monica Klein, a spokeswoman.

“We will continue to work closely with Speaker Mark-Viverito and the council to provide NYPD with more tools to enforce the law without inhibiting our officers’ ability to keep New York City the safest big city in America,” Klein said.

For Mark-Viverito, the proposed laws fulfill a promise she made last February when she set the council’s agenda. “We cannot continue to lock up those accused of low level, non-violent offenses without recognizing the dire, long-term consequences to them and to our city,” she said then.

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