ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

How We Did Our Analysis of New York City Nuisance Abatement Cases

By Sarah Ryley for ProPublica and the New York Daily News

Feb. 5, 2016, 9 a.m.

For the article “The NYPD is Kicking People Out of Their Homes, Even if They Haven’t Committed a Crime,” the New York Daily News and ProPublica looked at lawsuits brought by the City of New York targeting businesses and homes that the City claims are being used for illegal activities. The suits are based on the little-known nuisance abatement law, which gives the City broad authority to impose large fines and year-long closures for a laundry list of offenses, ranging from prostitution to drug sales to code violations. Because the cases are handled by the civil courts, they are adjudicated entirely separately from any criminal cases that resulted from the underlying police investigation. Nuisance abatement actions require a lower standard of proof, even though the resulting hardships could be far more severe than even the maximum penalty imposed for the same offense in the criminal courts.

Our goal was to determine how, and against whom, the law was being applied in cases that involved a residence.

We found that these cases impose a considerable burden on defendants, even in the common circumstance in which no crime was ultimately proven in the criminal investigation that prompted the civil action. The burden of these nuisance abatement cases falls almost entirely on minority communities.

For this analysis, we located 1,162 nuisance abatement cases that were filed in New York City’s five Supreme Courts (one in each borough) during 2013 and the first two quarters of 2014. More than 44 percent (516) of those cases were brought against residences. Of only the residential actions, the analysis found:

  • More than half of the 297 people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes were not convicted of a crime: 96 had their cases sealed and dismissed, 33 pleaded only to violations, and 44 appear to have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever.
  • Overall, tenants and homeowners either lost access to or had already left homes in three-quarters of the 337 cases for which The News and ProPublica were able to determine the outcome. This share includes instances where the tenant had already vacated, where a default judgment was entered against the tenant or homeowner, or the landlord reached a settlement with police to bar a tenant because they didn’t show up to court. 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 merely accused of wrongdoing in the future.
  • 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.

As there is no single public data source for all of these cases, we had to find them among the large volume of civil cases in the public record.

Our list may not include the complete universe of nuisance abatement cases. We attempted to find all nuisance abatement actions that listed the City of New York as the plaintiff and attorneys from the New York Police Department’s Legal Bureau as co-counsel. The NYPD public information office told us they filed 1,082 cases in 2013. An intensive and lengthy search of the supreme court clerks sites and the city’s eCourts system identified only 840 cases filed that year. The department would not say how many cases were filed in 2014.

We also filed a Freedom of Information Law request for nuisance abatement actions filed by the NYPD between 2008 and 2015, but an analysis showed that it was also incomplete.

It’s possible that the discrepancy between the NYPD’s totals and the count actually appearing in public records is due to cases being handled by the NYPD and a landlord-defendant without requiring the intervention of the courts, although the NYPD told us this is not common. It may also be a miscount on the part of the NYPD. Although our data is thus potentially incomplete, there is no reason to believe that missing cases would substantially change our findings.

We compiled a data set of details from each case, such as the underlying alleged illegal activity that led to the civil action; whether the premises targeted was a business or home; the judge who presided over the NYPD’s application to commence the action and over the final disposition of the case; whether the judge signed a temporary closing order; whether the tenant or homeowner had an attorney; the outcome of the civil action; the terms of the stipulation; and the dates of arrest, commencement of civil action and resolution of civil action.

A secondary analysis looked at the outcome of any criminal charges against 297 individuals who were either barred from a home or who gave up their tenancy as a result of settlements between the police and tenants or homeowners. This analysis did not include people who lost access to homes as a result of default judgments, actions agreed to by the landlords without the tenant present, or in instances where the outcome for the tenant was unknown (35% of all residential cases) either because the case was still active, the stipulation was missing from the court filings or because the action was withdrawn without explanation. In cases where someone gave up their lease, our analysis only included people whose names appeared in court filings, even if other members of the household may have also been displaced.

Information on the disposition of the criminal cases was obtained from a variety of sources: the five City district attorneys’ offices and the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, criminal court clerks, and the state Office of Court Administration’s criminal records database. When possible, the age and race of the individual was obtained from those same sources, in addition to interviews and court filings in the civil actions. We were not able to identify the age or race of every individual.

The story also used data on racial demographics of census tracts from the 2010 U.S. Census.

The research on the nuisance abatement cases was conducted by Sarah Ryley, Dareh Gregorian and Laura Bult of the Daily News; and Pia Dangelmayer, Christine Lee and Andrea Hilbert, special to ProPublica. Sarah Ryley conducted the data analyses.

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