New York City to make some minor offenses fines, not crimes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City will release new rules for police on Tuesday curbing the practice of bringing criminal charges against people caught drinking alcohol or urinating in public, among other minor offenses, in a shift championed by civil rights advocates.

City officials hope the effort will keep tens of thousands of people out of the city’s criminal courts each year, treating the offenses in most cases as civil matters punishable by a fines or community service. The effort is also intended to prevent some immigrants from being targeted by federal agents for deportation, officials said.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order in January expanding the focus of immigration agents to include the removal of immigrants charged with a crime, even before any conviction.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of Trump’s immigration policies, and the city has often refused to cooperate with federal deportation efforts by not turning over suspects, a policy that predated Trump’s presidency.

“In the civil system, there is no chance of immigration consequences,” Sarah Solon, a deputy director for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said in an email.

Before Tuesday, people caught urinating in public could end up having a criminal misdemeanor on their records and their fingerprints shared automatically with federal law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Groups representing immigrant New Yorkers, including the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the New York Police Department’s focus on minor, non-violent offenses was unnecessarily exposing the city’s large immigrant population to a risk of deportation.

Some 18,000 people were detained or issued criminal summons for public urination last year. For drinking alcohol in public, that number was 90,000. The city does not record how many of those people were immigrants.

The police department was obliged to come up with the new rules under the Criminal Justice Reform Act, spearheaded by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and signed by the mayor a year ago.

The council negotiated the new rules with the police department and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice over the past year.

“I think it helped make our case a little better for us,” Mark-Viverito said in a telephone interview, referring to Trump’s election last November.

Police can still issue criminal charges for such minor offenses against people on parole or who have been arrested at least twice for felonies in the previous two years.