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Groups Mull Suits Over Police Stings Aimed at Immigrant-owned Stores

Advocates, trade groups and lawmakers respond after an investigation by the New York Daily News and ProPublica shows the NYPD disproportionately targets businesses in minority neighborhoods for nuisance abatement actions.

The Bodega Association is considering a lawsuit against New York City in response to an investigation by the New York Daily News and ProPublica that found the police department targeted immigrant-owned delis with nuisance abatement actions.

Nuisance actions are civil lawsuits that the NYPD uses to threaten closures lasting up to a year of locations it says are being used for illegal activity.

The Daily News and ProPublica investigation, published on Friday, found nine out of 10 actions targeted businesses in neighborhoods where most of the residents are minorities; and more than half cited alcohol violations, such as sales to minors. The investigation also found precincts — some of which are majority white — where alcohol violations are equally as prevalent but that were not hit as frequently with nuisance actions.

To settle the cases, storeowners often agreed to warrantless searches, and to install cameras and data-storing card readers that the NYPD can access at any time.

"The police are picking on the most vulnerable stores, those with owners that are less educated about city laws and regulations,” said Ramon Murphy, president of the Bodega Association USA (Asociacion de Bodegueros).

“They are using intimidation tactics that force the owners to give up their legal rights. We will fight back with all of the legal weapons at our disposal.”

Murphy said the lawsuit would seek to end nuisance cases and to compensate storeowners who were unfairly discriminated against.

The association is expected to meet with attorneys next week. It is just one of several entities discussing or moving forward with actions as a result of the investigation.

Legal Services NYC filed a lawsuit two weeks ago on behalf of a woman, Austria Bueno, whose family was kicked out of their Queensbridge Houses apartment for four days after the NYPD got a secret closing order based on alleged drug activity that happened months before she moved in. (An earlier article by the Daily News and ProPublica that focused on residential cases found more than half of the people who lost access to a home in a nuisance case were not convicted of a crime in the underlying police investigation that triggered the action.)

“The Constitution protects the rights of business owners just as equally as it protects those of homeowners,” said Darpana Sheth, attorney for the Institute of Justice, another organization considering a suit. "The city cannot circumvent the Fourth Amendment by forcing business owners to agree to warrantless inspections and surveillance as the price to keep their businesses open. And the city’s failure to provide business owners with notice and an opportunity to be heard is a blatant violation of due process.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, whose office frequently fields complaints from small businesses struggling to stay afloat, said she would ask NYPD to ease up on mom-and-pop shops.

“Unless the NYPD can demonstrate a business owner or employee is an intentional and persistent violator, using the nuisance law is a disproportionate response to the occasional accidental sale of alcohol to a minor,” Brewer wrote in a letter to the NYPD dated April 26.

Read the Investigation

The NYPD is running stings against immigrant-owned shops, then pushing for warrantless searches. “It was total entrapment,” says one storeowner. Read the story.

She said the law is better suited for more serious offenses, such as to stop the sale of K2, or to break up rings of untaxed cigarette vendors.

“In any event, this law was certainly not intended as a cudgel to force small businesses into agreeing to provide the NYPD with warrantless searches,” she said.

Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, said he is talking to his fellow legislators about introducing a bill that would require the NYPD to disclose data on the race, gender and region of its nuisance abatement targets to ensure certain groups aren’t being disproportionately impacted by the enforcement.

“What we’re concerned about is whether their (the NYPD’s) selective enforcement is resulting in a disparate impact,” Kim said. “In order for us to know that, we need the data.”

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