New York, NY — The New York Police Department (NYPD) has a reputation for finding novel ways to violate the rights of citizens. “Stop-and-frisk” became the defining characteristic of a police force more interested in meeting quotas for revenue collection than stopping actual crimes.
Clandestine spying on innocent Muslim Americans—based not on criminal suspicion but entirely on ethnicity—became an obsession for the NYPD after 9/11. And now, technology is allowing the largest police department in the U.S. to continuously track the vehicular whereabouts of everyone, all the time, with automated license plate readers. It is giving this data to a private company, Vigilant Solutions, for their commercial gain.
Now, an investigation by ProPublica and the New York Daily News sheds light on a little-known law called “nuisance abatement” that has mushroomed into an abuse of power on par with civil asset forfeiture.
Under the nuisance abatement law, a resident or business owner can suddenly be locked out of their own home or property and left homeless in the street, without ever being arrested or charged with a crime. Because this is classified as a civil proceeding, defendants have no right to an attorney.
What started as a way for New York City to go after sex trafficking in the 1970s has become a tool for the NYPD to terrorize low-income residents involved in low-level drug activities.
The report begins with the story of Jameelah El-Shabazz, who was victimized when cops raided her home and found a small amount of cannabis along with 45 paper cups of finely crushed egg shells she used for ceremonial purposes. Even after it was determined that the egg shells were not cocaine, as cops originally thought, these dismissed charges were used to evict El-Shabazz and her family, including her newborn son, from her apartment.
El-Shabazz got the apartment back after agreeing to bar her eldest son from the apartment for life, even though no criminal charges were ever filed. Others are not so “lucky,” however.
“A man was prohibited from living in his family home and separated from his young daughter over gambling allegations that were dismissed in criminal court. A diabetic man said he was forced to sleep on subways and stoops for a month after being served with a nuisance abatement action over low-level drug charges that also never led to a conviction. Meanwhile, his elderly mother was left with no one to care for her.”
ProPublic and New York Daily News reviewed 516 residential nuisance abatement actions filed over a year and a half.
“173 of the people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes were not convicted of a crime, including 44 people who appear to have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever.
Overall, tenants and homeowners lost or had already left homes in three-quarters of the 337 cases for which the Daily News and ProPublica were able to determine the outcome. The other cases were either withdrawn without explanation, were missing settlements, or are still active.
In at least 74 cases, residents agreed to warrantless searches of their homes, sometimes in perpetuity, as one of the conditions of being allowed back in. Others agreed to automatically forfeit their leases if they were merely accused of wrongdoing in the future.
The toll of nuisance abatement actions falls almost exclusively on minorities, our analysis showed. Over 18 months, nine of 10 homes subjected to such actions were in minority communities. We identified the race of 215 of the 297 people who were barred from homes in nuisance abatement battles. Only five are white.”
Even though crime is at a historic low in New York City, nuisance abatement cases have grown to about 1,000 every year, with nearly half against residences. Most begin with the NYPD making a secret emergency appeal to a civil court judge, which allows them to get a “temporary closing order” so they can immediately evict the residents until the case is resolved.
The appeals are routinely based on hearsay and confidential informants. The “emergency” requests are often not emergencies at all but based on alleged offenses from several months earlier.
“If it’s six months old, then it’s not all that much of an emergency that you can’t wait three or four days for the (other) party to come in and tell their side of the story,” said Judge Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for the city’s courts.
In other cities, all parties can have their say before a nuisance abatement action takes place. But New York has taken this concept to new heights of injustice.
Even the person who originally crafted the nuisance abatement law in the 1970s now says it is being abused, especially in residential cases where no one is convicted of a crime.
“I think it’s wrong. I think it’s unconstitutional. I think it’s over-reaching,” said Sidney Baumgarten. “They’re giving up their constitutional rights. And why? Because they’re afraid they’re going to be evicted from their home, with their children. There’s a certain amount of compulsion, and threat and coercion, by the very nature of the process they’re using.”
The original law was designed to go after the proliferation of sex trafficking in Times Square. In 1982, the law was amended to allow the targeting of residential homes, and then in 1983, the preamble was rewritten so it could be used against a wider range of illegal establishments. In 1989, a judge ruled that a conviction is no longer necessary to initiate an action, and soon after the NYPD began creating special units for nuisance abatement actions.
In 1994, incoming police commissioner Bill Bratton seizes on nuisance abatement as “the most powerful civil tool available” for what is known as Broken Windows policing, and proceeded to double the size of the unit dedicated to civil cases.
In 2006-2007, the law was expanded again to include “illegal social clubs, counterfeit goods operations and unlicensed security guards,” as well as places that make or store fake IDs. In 2013, the number of nuisance abatement cases rose to 1,082, with “Alcohol Beverage Control” violations and drug and cannabis violations being the top alleged offenses. Prostitution, the original subject of the law, accounted for only 28 cases.
Some landlords and apartment tenants are glad that cops are going after small-time drug dealers, even though the black market is created by government prohibition. But the methods employed under nuisance abatement are highly questionable.
“Getting locked out of your home without warning is as traumatic as losing a job, witnessing a shooting, being robbed, any number of things that violate your sense of personal integrity and safety,” said Jonathan Levy, the attorney for El-Shabazz. “In general, I think it’s one of the most pernicious things about using this law against residential properties as opposed to commercial.”
The good news is that exposure of these abuses of power can actually bring change.
In response to the investigation carried out by ProPublica and the New York Daily News, Judge Fisher issued “an advisory notice” to judges on Feb. 1 that recommended limiting the granting of temporary closing orders of homes before the tenant or homeowner has come to court. The notice also cautioned against granting such orders when the evidence of alleged illegal activity is old, or based on “statements with multiple layers of hearsay” and the word of confidential informants.”
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