On a warm October morning, Daniel Perez, 56, walked out of Part 105 at the Brooklyn Criminal Court. He was wearing yesterday’s clothes.
Because he drank a can of beer outside, Perez found himself in jail overnight, caught in the machinery of a quality of life section of the legal system that threatens to snatch up hundreds of thousands of New York City residents each year.
This is a story about a set of laws. They are minor laws for minor infractions that everyone agrees should be on the books, but no one knows exactly how to enforce. And though they may be minor, they cause a great deal of pain and expense for both the city and its citizens.
On the last night in September, Perez was drinking in the outdoor courtyard of his own East New York apartment building with his brother and some friends when a police officer approached. Perez said she told them something like, “We know you guys drink out here, but you’ve got to do it more on the down-low.”
According to the summons issued to Perez, Officer JoAnn McAllister witnessed him committing the offense of “consumption of alcohol in public” at 8:42 p.m. She “observed the defendant on a sidewalk which is a public place, and drinking from a can of ‘24 oz. Crazy Stallion’ containing an alcoholic beverage, namely beer,” she wrote.
Normally, officers issue a pink summons slip when they witness such violations of New York City’s Administrative Code. But when police ran Perez’s name through their database, they discovered that he’d been given a summons in 2011 for the same offense and had failed to appear in court. As a result, a warrant—technically called a Summons Appearance Part, or SAP warrant—had been issued for his arrest. Officers took Perez into custody, and he spent the entire night in Brooklyn’s Central Booking.
If you have ever biked down a New York City sidewalk, littered, stayed in a park after dark, walked a dog without a leash or had a beer outside, even on your own stoop, you, too, have committed a violation of the Administrative Code, a set of laws safeguarding quality of life. If caught violating the code, a police officer will typically issue you a summons requiring you to appear in court. There, you will be ordered to pay a small fine if found guilty.
But there is a catch. In 1994, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani enacted measures “that would make it more difficult for people committing minor offenses like urinating in public and possessing marijuana to escape punishment,” said a New York Times article from that year. These measures allowed police precincts to “keep computer records on who receives summonses and whether they appear in court,” opening the door for courts to issue warrants for those who failed to appear. This marked the beginning of the system we see today, continued and perhaps even strengthened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In post-Giuliani New York City, if you’ve failed to appear on a summons—whether it was because you had a conflict, could not afford to pay a fine or simply forgot to come—then your name was likely added to a long and growing list of some 1 million outstanding summons warrants in the city, a quarter of which come from the Brooklyn area alone. And until you deal with that warrant, you’ll be a wanted man or woman.
On any given morning at 120 Schermerhorn Street, step into Part 105 and you will see many people wearing yesterday’s clothes. They are hidden in a wooden box with glass windows in the back left corner of the room, waiting for their names to be called.
On the first morning in October, most were men. Many were people of color. Several were from East New York. In an ongoing federal class action lawsuit, Stinson v. City of New York, plaintiffs allege that a quota system pressures police to issue summonses, even without probable cause. And an analysis of 2011 summonses by The New York World pointed to concentrated geographic areas—largely heavily populated by minority communities—in which summonses were most commonly issued.
Typically, the first names called in the courtroom belong to those who failed to deal with a pink summons at some point in the near or distant past. The previous night, these defendants had some sort of contact with law enforcement— some were involved in more serious crimes, some were pulled over for traffic violations and some simply violated the Administrative Code a second time—and an outstanding summons warrant flagged them for arrest.
At 9 a.m., as court begins, officers of the court—prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges alike—hurry to release those who were picked up on second violations of the Administrative Code. Had it been their first encounter with law enforcement, these defendants could have been issued a summons on the street, not taken into custody. Instead, their outstanding warrants led them to a night in jail.
Almost without fail, prosecutors offer these defendants an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, commonly known as an ACD. With this offer, defendants who stay out of trouble for six months will have both the original violation and the new one automatically closed and sealed. “In Brooklyn, it’s the equivalent of a dismissal,” a public defender said.
This doesn’t mean these offenses are without consequence. Defendants whose arrests occur too late for them to make it to the court’s 1 a.m. closing time will have to wait until the next morning to appear before a judge.
Just what constitutes “too late” depends on a variety of circumstances. “The length of time between arrest and arraignment is usually 24 hours,” says the New York City Criminal Court website. Defense attorneys, however, said clients sometimes spend up to 48 hours in jail.
Processing time can differ depending on how busy the court docket is, the day of the week and any glitches in paperwork. One public defender said attorneys must wait on files from the court before a client can be arraigned. This can take longer if a client’s name is identical to someone with an outstanding warrant, someone who is on an FBI watch list or someone who has an immigration hold. Money does not seem to impact these delays, as those who can afford to hire private attorneys are processed in the exact same way and can also expect to wait up to 48 hours before being brought before a judge.
No matter what the cause of such delays, the end result is clear. “Scores of people are arrested and held in jail for hours until they appear in court for simply ignoring a summons,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.
When someone brought in on a summons warrant finally gets in front of a judge, things typically move more quickly.
Public defenders say it’s clear that almost everyone in the courtroom simply wants these cases to go away. Defense attorneys want their clients released, prosecutors are happy to quickly do so and judges are more than willing to accept ACD offers. “They really, really don’t care,” said a public defender.
Daniel Perez’s case fit just this mold. Back in June 2011, at around 3:40 p.m., Perez was again having a drink in public—this time a 24-ounce Coors, according to his summons. That summons directed him to appear in court at 346 Broadway in Manhattan at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, a date more than two months after the summons was issued. His arraignment form, to be filled out that day in court, has check boxes offering choices of “guilty” and “not guilty.” In Perez’s case, neither is selected. He failed to show up.
That very day, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Officers don’t tend to go in search of those who merely commit code violations, so Perez’s warrant sat there, waiting for him to come into contact with the system again. When he was picked up on the last night in September of this year, almost two years after his initial summons, officers found the warrant and brought him to jail.
On Oct. 1, Perez sat in the box in the corner, looking tired. Several other cases were called before his. Each defendant stood before Judge Richard Montelione in the large courtroom filled with dark wooden pews. From his seat at the bench, “IN GOD WE TRUST” in block gold letters above his head, Montelione presided as defendant after defendant brought in on outstanding summons warrants accepted ACD offers.
When Perez’s name was finally called, he was made the same offer. Montelione said Perez’s charges would be dismissed in six months so long as he continued to “live within the law and have no new arrests and no negative encounters with law enforcement.” Court documents show Perez’s record can be cleared of both open container offenses on March 28, 2014.
He was released at 10:18 a.m., more than 13 hours after his arrest.
Spending a night in jail is inconvenient at a minimum. By all accounts, conditions in the arraignment cells are bad, and defendants like Perez, brought in on low-level offenses, are mixed in with those charged with more serious crimes.
Perez said he was in a room with some 30 to 35 other people. “It’s nasty, he said. “Toilet’s nasty. Just plain nasty. That’s why they do that I guess—make you stay a day. A little punishment.”
Abdul Silas, 32, also spent the evening in jail due to a warrant stemming from a neglected summons. Silas provided a similar description of the arraignment conditions. “It’s cold. The food is nasty. The floors are dirty. The toilets are backed up,” he said.
Perez was unable to sleep; Silas slept on the floor.
“We see people jailed for failure to pay tickets for minor infractions, like riding a bicycle on a sidewalk or being in the park after dark, every day,” said Schreibersdorf. “This is inappropriate—not only does it seriously impact the person, who is incarcerated with people charged with much more serious crimes, but it also slows down the arrest-to-arraignment process and wastes police, prosecutor, defense and court resources.”
There don’t seem to be any figures on the cost of housing defendants in arraignment cells, but a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office indicates that it costs about $460 a day to house each New York City inmate.
Until they are cleared, outstanding warrants also have collateral consequences. They can appear on criminal background checks when people apply for jobs or loans. They can impact citizenship applications and even influence a person’s credit rating. One public defender said many of his clients have low-security jobs and may be fired for a single incident of missing work. Homeless clients may lose their slots in shelters for failure to make curfew.
All of this begs the question: Why don’t people just deal with their summonses?
For many, the issue is money. According to the Administrative Code, those found guilty of most summons violations can be ordered to pay fines ranging from $25 to $75, though judges have discretion to order fines of lower amounts or to give defendants time to pay. But these fines are the least of it—entering a guilty plea in court often also comes with a mandatory court fee of $125. And no matter what, the only way to find out how much a fine will be is to show up to court.
Perez, who is unemployed, said, “I didn’t have the money at the time. I said, ‘When I get my money, I’ll pay.’” Perez’s second encounter with law enforcement came before he fulfilled this promise to himself.
Others don’t appear because they simply don’t understand the gravity of the issue. “Many individuals are either unable to pay the fine or mistakenly disregard the ticket, assuming it is no more than a minor infraction,” said Schreibersdorf.
Transportation and time can be issues for others. Most summonses, including those issued in Brooklyn, are returnable to a Manhattan court. With few exceptions, defendants must appear on a specific date during business hours to deal with summonses—not always easy for a working person.
Perez’s violation, drinking in public, actually has a unique “Plea by Mail” program. Since 2004, people issued summonses for this specific violation can mail in a guilty plea and a $25 check, says the New York City courts website, though only if they are charged with the drinking violation alone. A similar program exists for summonses for urinating in public. All other offenses require court appearances, as guilt must be determined before a judge can order a fine.
Despite all these consequences, for some who violate the Administrative Code, the sanctions currently imposed by the city aren’t a deterrent. Silas, who was also given an ACD when he was released from court that morning, was keenly aware of the state of affairs with these warrants. He said he has been issued summonses for drinking in public on many occasions. He typically ignores them. “I didn’t want to pay. It’s easier to do like this and spend the night in jail,” he said. “They vacate it the next morning.”
That’s one approach. But even those who want to abide by the rules can have difficulty doing so. Those who fail to make a court appearance or who can’t afford a fine may be sent running in circles as they try to determine what to do next.
A phone call to Brooklyn’s Criminal Court sends the caller to a generic “New York City Criminal Court Information Line.” After pressing 2 for Brooklyn then 5 for Summons Information, the caller will hear the following message: “If you received a pink summons from a law enforcement officer or agency directing you to appear at 120 Schermerhorn Street, you must personally appear on the date specified. If you need further information or to inquire about correspondence that you sent to the court in reference to summonses, or to inquire about a summons that has been adjudicated at 120 Schermerhorn Street, please call (347) 404-9440.” That number rings at length before informing the caller that one cannot leave a message and abruptly disconnecting.
Those who realize a warrant has resulted from their failure to appear may also have difficulty figuring out how to deal with it. “A warrant can only be cleared/vacated by a defendant’s appearance before a judge,” the city’s courts website says. “In order to clear a warrant, the defendant must return to the court that issued it. A judge will decide what happens next,” says the NYPD’s page.
Daniel Perez didn’t conduct any of this research. He does not have Internet access. He doesn’t even have a phone.
Unfortunately, none of these websites or information lines connect those with summons warrants to a program called Safe Surrender, run by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.
A special project of District Attorney Charles Hynes, Safe Surrender is a program to “allow people to get their life back on track without the low-level crimes holding them back by resolving summonses and connecting them with social services,” says the DA’s website.
Safe Surrender is run by Rev. Joseph Jones, Jr., a Brooklyn minister. Jones knows well that Daniel Perez’s story is far from unique. He estimates that there are nearly 250,000 arrest warrants stemming from unresolved Administrative Code violations in the Brooklyn area alone. He has seen warrants dating back as far as 1975, he said.
Jones and colleagues brought the idea for Safe Surrender to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office almost four years ago after hearing about the concept from religious leaders in other states. At a Safe Surrender event, a person with an outstanding warrant comes to a location away from court—typically a church—and can have his or her case heard in front of a judge, Jones said. Teams of assistant district attorneys and public defenders volunteer their time to make the program happen. Together, these court officials inspect summons violations in order to find ways to dismiss them, Jones said. If a summons was filled out incorrectly, it will be dismissed as insufficient. If it was properly filed, it will be dismissed in the interest of justice, he said. Since its inception in 2010, Safe Surrender has been able to clear nearly 2,500 outstanding warrants.
Events are held three or four times a year, with the next scheduled to take place Nov. 1 and 2 at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Each event has an average of 500 attendees, Jones said, and “99 percent of the people who show up have been able to resolve the warrant with their summons.”
“We don’t take any money at Safe Surrender. None,” Jones said. “Whatever fine they are supposed to pay, we don’t even bother with it. And the people who come in, usually they don’t have any money on them anyways. Telling them they have to come back and pay the fine doesn’t help them.” One to two percent of attendees will be asked to do some community service, Jones said, but only in rare cases, “like if someone came in with 47 open warrants.”
Jones sees the typical Safe Surrender attendee as someone who was issued a summons and “didn’t know what to do with it, so they just stopped doing anything.” He sympathizes with the “poor, unsuspecting person who happens to get pulled over by a cop on some minor traffic infraction and all of a sudden they’ve got some warrant from back in the day they never took care of.”
Most warrants Jones sees are from unresolved summonses for drinking in public, failure to have an appropriate dog license, trespassing, riding bicycles on the sidewalk and low-level marijuana offenses.
“Nobody gets arrested at Safe Surrender, nobody,” even those who mistakenly show up to resolve more serious felony warrants, Jones said. His program will instead make an appointment for such attendees to meet with an attorney at a later time. “There is never a contact with law enforcement at Safe Surrender,” he said.
The Safe Surrender program has a religious tone. Good Friday is always chosen as a day for events as “that is the day Christ surrendered himself,” Jones said. Safe Surrender relies on the goodness of Brooklyn churches to exist. Each event costs an estimated $35,000 for permits and security, toilet rentals and overtime fees for court staff. Jones usually raises all of this money by going from church to church. Churches also supply the 300 volunteers and free spaces needed to hold these events.
Jones thinks the price tag for a Safe Surrender event pales in comparison to the costs of traditional methods of dealing with outstanding warrants. Adding up overtime for police, towing cars of those arrested after traffic violations, court fees and more, Jones estimates “it’ll cost the city $3,000 to $5,000 for court costs and them being in jail. You multiply that by the lowest number we’ve serviced at an event so far, 375, we saved the city thousands of dollars,” he said. In the bigger picture, Jones likes that his program “leaves people with the mindset that the criminal justice system isn’t out to get everybody.”
If the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office changes hands next year, the fate of Safe Surrender is unclear. No other district attorney in the city currently runs a similar program. Jones said he has not yet heard from Kenneth Thompson, Hynes’ competitor for the position, on whether he will continue the program if elected. Thompson’s offices declined to comment on the matter while Hynes is still in office.
Despite its many positives, there is one major problem with Safe Surrender—few people seem to have heard of it. Perez, Silas and others in court that morning were not aware of the program.
Jones said he uses social media, thousands of flyers, appearances on radio and television stations and the churches themselves for promotion. With the exception of Hynes’ own website, none of the city’s court- or police-related information sources mention the program.
Lisa Schreibersdorf of Brooklyn Defender Services supports Safe Surrender. She also suggested other means of lessening the impact of unresolved summonses. “First, the police should change any policies that encourage arrest for outstanding summons warrants,” she said. “The law should be changed to preclude arrest as well. In the meantime, written warnings instead of warrants when payment deadlines pass, alternative penalty options like community service for those who cannot pay and increased Safe Surrender opportunities would be positive steps,” she said.
In the end, it’s a bit difficult to determine who actually is in favor of the arrest and jailing of those who fail to appear for summonses. Jones sees the issue as stemming from City Hall’s longstanding desire to improve quality of life in the city. He agrees that neither tourists nor residents want to see people urinating in public, but said, “There have to be some limitations.”
Mayor Bloomberg’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the NYPD declined to comment.
It is unclear what might happen under a new mayor next year. In an August debate, Democratic Bill de Blasio was one of several candidates who said he thinks drinking a beer on your own stoop should be legal. Republican candidate Joseph Lhota also reportedly supports decriminalizing this type of public consumption of alcohol. But even if such a change were to come about, there remain a whole host of other code violations that can land citizens with a summons, a court date, and if they fail to appear, an arrest warrant.
For now, it seems cracking open a beer—and many such minor violations—will continue to carry major consequences. Daniel Perez said he has learned a lesson. “If I get another one, I’ll try to pay for it. I can’t go through all this,” he said.