1940 January 20

Mayor La Guardia: “Arrest Punks, Pimps, Racketeers and Gangsters on Vagrancy Charges”


Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York City on this day sent a letter to the Chief Magistrate of the city’s criminal courts telling (and not suggesting) him that the police should arrest “punks, pimps, racketeers and gangsters” on vagrancy charges. And, he made clear, when someone in one of these categories produces a roll of dollar bills to prove that he is not a vagrant, the judge should take that as evidence of probable criminal activity and inquire into the source of the money. “The mere possession of money is not a defense” to vagrancy or other criminal charges, he continued. He cited the cases of two alleged racketeers who had their vagrancy charges dismissed when they produced cash and other evidence of their financial status.

La Guardia made it clear that he was presenting this idea “as a matter of law.”

La Guardia had been a good — and one of the few– civil libertarians in Congress in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was, for example, co-sponsor of the 1931 Norris La Guardia Act (March 23, 1932), which ended many abusive practices against labor unions. As mayor of New York City, however, he violated civil liberties on a number of issues. In 1940, for example, when a controversy arose over the appointment of the great philosopher Bertrand Russell to City College of New York, because of his views on religion and morality, LaGuardia deleted the $8,000 salary from the college’s budget.

Despite many police reforms over the years, abusive practices by the New York City Police continued. See the court decision ordering an end to unconstitutional stops and frisks on August 12, 2013.

Read: H. Paul Jeffers, The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia  (2002)

Learn more about curbing police misconduct: Samuel Walker and Carol Archbold, The New World of Police Accountability, 2nd ed. (2014)






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