‘Clean Slate’ offers New Yorkers a chance to get rid of old summonses
Hundreds of New Yorkers lined up outside the Soul Saving Church in West Harlem on Saturday for a rare chance to wipe minor, lingering infractions off their records.
Just two hours into “Clean Slate,” a daylong event organized by the Manhattan DA’s office, 300 people from across the city had signed in so they could see a judge and resolve open summonses that in some cases carry the threat of arrest or deportation. Employers and the military often exclude candidates with unresolved civil violations in their past.
The DA’s office reassured the public leading up to the event that it was not a ploy to lure past violators in order to arrest them.
The judge, Erika M. Edwards, heard from 20 defendants at a time. Most came to address summonses they’d neglected for years. Many said they’d forgotten to clear them up over the months that had passed between the time they had been cited and their court dates. Some said they couldn’t afford to take a day off from work to sit in court, while others said they didn’t have the money to pay the infractions, which normally range from $25 to $250.
In 2014 the New York City Criminal Court collected $8,798,208 from fines from paid summonses, almost a third of its total revenue, according to the court’s annual report. Most defendants plead guilty or ignore their court orders; of the 82,554 summonses that were filed in the Bronx in 2014, only 612 resulted in trials.
Luz Hernandez came to Clean Slate from the Hunts Point homeless shelter she lives at to clear her name for a summons she received after a July 4 fireworks violation two years ago.
“I couldn’t make the court date because I was in Honduras,” she said.
“I don’t like the ducking and hiding,” said Jevon Stuart, a Bronx resident who came to resolve a $125 penalty for marijuana possession. “But I didn’t have the money. I have four children and Christmas is coming.”
For many with limited income, paying off a violation comes in low on the list of priorities.
“A lot of these people can’t afford it,” said Christine Sanchez, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society. “They live in shelters and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and then they put themselves in jeopardy.”
According to a 2014 report by The Daily News, close to 81% of the 7.3 million people who received a summons between 2001 and 2013 were black and Hispanic; and in Hunts Point, around 16 out of every 100 residents receives a summons, compared with around 2 out of every 100 in the Upper West Side and Riverdale.
Hunts Point resident David Garcia said he was smoking a cigarette outside of the Jackson Avenue subway station one day last summer when a police officer happened along and handed him a $75 summons.
“He told me I was technically on the train. I told him it wasn’t fair, but the cop said his sergeant was making him enforce it,” Garcia said.
Ron Holliday, a Mott Haven resident, said he was cited for drinking a beer inside a laundromat, but never paid because he’s been homeless for over four years and didn’t have the money.
“Everyone in my area gets summonses, but they don’t harass the people coming out of Radio City,” Holliday said.
Michael Whaley, also from Mott Haven, said he received a $125 summons for trying to enter the subway after swiping his daughter’s student Metrocard, even though she had swiped his immediately after. He said it was an honest mistake he tried to explain to the police officer, to no avail. “It’s totally unfair. The city tries to get money out of everyone, one way or another,” he said.
But the initiative was designed not just to help New Yorkers clear their slates.
“It allows the court to be less burdened so that it can focus more on serious crimes,” said Patrick Muncie, deputy director of communications for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Some people gave up and turned around when they saw the long line leading to the church. But the wait didn’t deter Bronxite Ronald Douglas, who said he was determined to resolve a summons he’d received in 1978 for a tiff he got into with another man on a subway platform.
“I’ve turned my life around since then, and this has always been on my mind,” he said.