East Flatbush

VIDEO: Over 100 people clean their criminal records for low-level offenses at DA’s Begin Again event

September 24, 2018 By Liliana Bernal Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Kent Handberry is starting new in New York. While he searches for a job he is staying in a Bedford-Stuyvesant shelter, but three weeks ago he was hit with a $25 ticket after getting caught with an open can of beer in public.

“Of course I was angry because I don’t have money, I’m in a shelter,” Handberry said, adding he feared the ticket would make getting a job harder and he wouldn’t be able to complete his transition from Philadelphia to New York.

Last week at the shelter, he saw flyers announcing the sixth Begin Again event, an initiative from the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office that offers city residents an opportunity to clear summons warrants for low-level offenses as well as past marijuana convictions and misdemeanor marijuana warrants.  

At Lenox Hill Baptist Church in East Flatbush, Handberry and 138 other individuals attended the event last weekend to have their warrants vacated and summonses dismissed. As observed in the waiting line, most of them were black and Latino.

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At the event, participants consulted with attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services to make sure their summons warrants were eligible to be heard. In a makeshift courtroom in the church, a judge addressed the outstanding summons and bench warrants.

As one of participants said, “It’s a shortcut.”

These arrest warrants are sent when a person doesn’t respond to a summons for a minor infraction like riding a bike on the sidewalk or, like Handberry’s case, for having an open container of alcohol in a public area.

The warrants not only represent a threat of arrest but also an impediment for getting jobs, housing and education. And in the current immigration enforcement environment, an open warrant can be highly risky for undocumented immigrants.

“When you go to job interviews … they do the criminal background check and if you have these on you they see that, then most employers don’t even wanna bother with you because they figure, ‘oh he got open containers, he’s a drunk or an alcoholic,’ or something like that, you know they stereotype,” Hanberry said.

After receiving free legal consultation and assistance, 56 people filed petitions to vacate their marijuana convictions. A judge will then decide on the motion, following the district attorney’s consent, on a later date.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also moved to dismiss 3,146 marijuana summons warrants for low-level offenses to clear the deck in Brooklyn as part of the city’s change in the enforcement policies announced earlier this month.

“I’ve decided that in Brooklyn my office will not prosecute marijuana cases,” Gonzalez said at the event. “There were over 20,000 regular people from Brooklyn that have a criminal conviction on their record for marijuana possession and I thought it would be hypocritical to allow those people to walk around for the rest of their lives with convictions for marijuana when we’re no longer prosecuting those cases.”

Gonzalez added that Begin Again is an opportunity for law enforcement and the community to work together and strengthen community trust in the criminal justice system.

“We know that a lot of these cases came during the stop and frisk era,” Gonzalez said. “We think that the appropriate thing, as the city has abandoned stop and frisk, is to make sure that these warrants are now dealt with and have been vacated.”

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