This story was co-published with the New York Daily News.
A wide swath of public officials are calling for change in response to a Daily News and ProPublica investigation about the NYPD’s use of an obscure type of lawsuit to boot hundreds of people from homes. The cases are happening almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods.
Several city council members said they were considering amendments and other reforms to safeguard abuses.
Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson said the statistics included in the story are “shocking.”
Public Advocate Letitia James said she would conduct a thorough inquiry into “some serious legal and constitutional questions” raised by the story. “Some of the rights that individuals are forfeiting, to me, constitutes coercion.”
The judge who oversees the day-to-day operation of the state’s trial courts, which handle nuisance abatement cases, also said there should be more safeguards.
“It strikes me that this law may be broader than it should be,” said Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks. “The Mayor’s Office and the city council might take a close look at that.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected on a promise of police reform, deferred comment to the NYPD. The NYPD ignored repeated requests for comment.
As a result of the story, Marks said that an educational session for judges handling the nuisance abatement cases would be held later this month. Marks stressed judges are independent and entitled to apply the law as they interpret it.
Requiring more recent evidence, prohibiting hearsay evidence, and requiring that cases include an arrest or conviction are all issues that would need to be addressed legislatively, Marks said.
The Daily News and ProPublica story found the NYPD has used the nuisance abatement law, enacted in the 1970s to clean up Times Square, to lock families out of their homes over investigations that often never led to a criminal conviction. After reviewing more than 500 cases filed against residences during 2013 and the first half of 2014, the investigation found:
- In 75 percent of cases, judges approved the NYPD’s request to lock people out before residents even had a chance to come to court.
- NYPD requests for locking out residents came an average of six months after the alleged illegal activity, even though the requests justified such an extreme measure by claiming illegal activity was “ongoing.”
- In order to settle the cases, tenants and homeowners often agreed to onerous provisions, such as banning specific family members for life, warrantless searches, and automatically forfeiting leases if merely accused of wrongdoing in the future.
- 173 of the 297 people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes were not convicted of a crime. Forty-four of those people appear to have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever.
- Tenants, who rarely had lawyers, described scenarios of being left to fend for themselves against an NYPD attorney, while a judge was nowhere to be seen.
“I would hope that the administration, including the mayor and the police commissioner, (Bill) Bratton, gets to the bottom of this,” said James, the public advocate. “The office of public advocate will be drafting a letter asking for the specificity and answers to some very serious questions.”
James said she would look at whether there’s a pattern of “illegal enforcement,” of the law, the lack of criminal convictions in the cases, the reliance on confidential informants, and whether this is “a continuation of Broken Windows,” referring to the NYPD’s strategy of aggressively enforcing low-level offenses to prevent more serious crime.
City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) said his office is working on three legislative items: a bill that would require the NYPD to produce regular publicly available reports on its use of the nuisance abatement law; establishing a 90-day window within which the NYPD must file an action after the last-known violation; and stipulating that these cases can only be brought after an arrest or conviction.
The NYPD Is Kicking People Out of Their Homes, Even If They Haven’t Committed a Crime
And it’s happening almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods. Read the story.
Levine, along with Judge Marks, also said he would push for more funding to provide lawyers to defendants in the cases.
“Loss of a home has life-changing impact, and no one should face such a penalty without benefit of an attorney,” Levine said.
Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens), chairman of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, said he thinks a hearing is necessary to flesh out possible reforms.
"Nuisance abatement actions are an important quality-of-life tool, but the wide disparity among judges in granting temporary closing orders and the lack of representation for those facing eviction raise legitimate due process concerns that the city council needs to examine through a hearing and possibly address through legislation,” said Lancman.
The deputy chief administrative judge who oversees the city’s court system, Fern Fisher, issued an advisory notice to judges earlier this month in response to The News and ProPublica’s findings.
The advisory recommends judges limit the practice of granting temporary closing orders against residences, particularly when the evidence is stale, based on “multiple layers of hearsay,” or the word of confidential informants. The advisory also recommends judges hold settlement agreements in open court, with a court reporter present, to ensure tenants are fully informed of their rights and understand what they are signing.
Advocates are calling for even further changes.
NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn said the city and the court system should review every closing order and settlement and void the ones that are improper.
Dunn also called for an independent investigation into the NYPD’s practice of using records from sealed criminal cases against people in these civil court actions, as was done in some of the cases reviewed by The News and ProPublica. This is a violation of the state sealing statute.
Bob Gangi of the Prison Reform Organizing Project said the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit, which is responsible for nuisance abatement cases, should be thoroughly investigated and disbanded.
Update, Feb. 8, 2016: Mayor de Blasio was asked about nuisance abatement at an unrelated press conference. Here is his response:
"The concept of the law is to make sure that if people are posing a threat to their neighbors, that we're able to address that threat. It is not that different from what we do in public housing when someone is a danger to their fellow residents, that there are measures we take to make sure that they don't create a danger. There should always be due process. So we're certainly going to look carefully at the protocols to make sure that there's appropriate due process and decisions are made carefully. But the underlying idea is an appropriate one, that if we believe someone is an ongoing threat and treating their neighbors inappropriately, it's one of the steps we have the option to take."