New York Times – City Room
June 15, 2010
By Natasha Lenard
A small group of homeless people and advocates gathered Tuesday in a sun-dappled Police Plaza in Manhattan to give Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly a gift: a mock-up summons for disorderly conduct printed on a poster-size white card.
The protesters, led by Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group run by the current and formerly homeless, charged that police officers routinely issued unfounded and unsubstantiated disorderly conduct summonses to homeless people.
“Disorderly conduct charges are too vague and ambiguous, which makes them difficult to defend,” said John Jones, 39, who has been sleeping on the streets of New York for eight and a half years. Mr. Jones spent a week in a courthouse jail cell in 2008 after he was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge for being in Central Park after its 1 a.m. curfew. His case was eventually dismissed.
Under current statute, police officers can use their discretion to define what constitutes disorderly conduct, and they need not specify the behavior when issuing summonses. According to a recent WABC-TV report, of the 382,000 misdemeanor summonses for infractions like disorderly conduct and loitering that were adjudicated in city courts in 2008, about 51 percent were dismissed outright.
Picture the Homeless demanded that the disorderly conduct statute be changed to clearly define offenses that fall under it, and that the police be required to specify on disorderly conduct summonses why the summons was issued.
Mark Taylor, a vice president of the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, joined the demonstration outside Police Headquarters. “Officers are bringing homeless people into the criminal justice system in circumstances when there simply has been no illegal behavior,” he said. Mr. Taylor added that pressure on individual police officers to make arrests and issue summonses to fill quota demands was at a high point.
Commissioner Kelly was not available to address the demonstration, but a police sergeant outside 1 Police Plaza accepted the mock summons on his behalf.