By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A legal aid group sued the New York City Police Department on Friday, saying officers had illegally arrested thousands of people for small quantities of concealed marijuana instead of issuing them tickets as required by law.
The lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court on behalf of five New Yorkers arrested in April and May, wants the court to declare such arrests unlawful and issue an injunction to stop officers from making them.
The suit marks the latest line of attack by civil rights advocates against misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which have skyrocketed in New York City in recent years, from about 2,000 a year in 1990 to more than 50,000 annually in 2010 and 2011.
This year, Governor Andrew Cuomo entered the fray, unsuccessfully pushing for legislation to decriminalize public possession of small quantities of pot.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and the district attorneys of all five boroughs in New York City expressed support for the bill, which failed this week to gain traction in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
Cuomo's proposal was made in response to criticism of the police department's controversial "stop-and-frisk" practice, which, in an effort to reduce street crime, allows officers to search anyone they deem suspicious.
According to Friday's lawsuit, the plaintiffs were all charged earlier this year with possession of a small amount of marijuana that is "burning or open to public view." The lawsuit says the marijuana only became visible when officers either searched them or directed them to empty their pockets.
When the marijuana is not in view, state law calls for a violation and a ticket, rather than an arrest that typically requires a stay in detention and a court arraignment within 24 hours, the lawsuit said.
"The law mandates that these individuals promptly be issued a Desk Appearance Ticket, akin to a traffic ticket, and be released from custody and sent on their way," the lawsuit said.
"The police, however, repeatedly failed, and continue to fail to follow the law and, as a result, subject these individuals to the full arrest process, with all of its direct and collateral negative consequences."
Last year, Kelly directed officers to issue violations, rather than misdemeanors, for small amounts of marijuana that only come into open view during a search.
Despite that directive, the lawsuit claims, officers have continued to arrest such individuals on misdemeanor charges.
A spokeswoman for the city's law department, which defends suits against the police department, said the city has not yet been formally served with the complaint.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)