Officials were told of problems with the New York Police Department’s practice of locking people out of their homes months before police made an innocent family homeless for days.
The police had kicked out the family as part of a nuisance abatement action, a controversial tool in which residents can be locked out without having a chance to tell their side of the story in court. The actions are aimed at uprooting illegal activity by targeting the location it stems from. A New York Daily News and ProPublica investigation has detailed how people who haven’t even been charged with crimes have been ensnared in the actions.
Two nonprofit legal groups wrote a letter in April 2015 to the Law Department, which is co-counsel in every nuisance case, detailing “the eviction of vulnerable tenants without prior due process.”
The letter, from the Legal Aid Society and Legal Services NYC, also noted that nuisance cases are frequently filed many months after the last alleged offense, and after the New York City Housing Authority has already initiated, and in some cases resolved, administrative proceedings against the tenants over the same allegations.
Timeline of Trouble
- January and February 2015: The NYPD says a confidential informant buys crack at an apartment in the Queensbridge public housing complex on two occasions. Then a search turns up crack, ammunition and $22,000. Three people are arrested.
- April 2, 2015: The city Law Department is warned of concerns about the NYPD’s use of closing orders locking people out of their apartments before residents had the opportunity to appear in court.
- April 24, 2015: The problem tenants move out of the Queensbridge apartment.
- June 19, 2015: The Law Department says the NYPD ensures that no innocent people are put out on the streets by the closing orders, and that the NYPD will cross-check eviction proceedings with the public housing authority.
- June 29, 2015: The Law Department signs off on the Queensbridge case.
- Aug. 1, 2015: Austria Bueno and her family move into the Queensbridge apartment.
- Dec. 11, 2015: The NYPD serves the apartment with a closing order while no one is home. Bueno’s family is now homeless.
- Dec. 15, 2015: Bueno has her first court date and is allowed back in her home after explaining police went after the wrong tenants. NYPD doesn’t drop the case until three months later as they attempt to get her to waive her rights to sue. She refuses.
- April 12, 2016: Bueno sues the city.
The people often caught up the orders, the letter stated, are the “elderly, disabled, or parents of minor children” living in the apartment.
Zachary Carter, the city’s top lawyer, responded on June 19, 2015, saying that police are careful not to kick out innocent tenants. He also said cops would work to get a list of eviction cases from NYCHA in order to avoid duplicating efforts.
Ten days after Carter’s response, his department signed off on a case involving an apartment in the Queensbridge public housing complex that ended up locking out the wrong tenants.
Police claim in court filings that the apartment was being used to sell crack, citing two undercover buys and arrests in early 2015.
If the NYPD had checked with NYCHA, they would have known the problem tenants actually moved out months earlier, on April 24, 2015.
The NYPD didn’t get around to filing a request to close the apartment until December. Before then, an officer started coming around asking about the old tenants, a neighbor, who requested anonymity, told the Daily News.
“He (the officer) came back like three times,” the neighbor recounted. “What I told them was, ‘It’s new people living there.’”
The neighbor said the officer “acted like he didn’t believe me, like I was trying to cover up for the people that was living there.”
The police taped the nuisance abatement papers to the apartment door on Dec. 11, 2015, while no one was home, along with two large stickers that said the home was closed due to drug activity, and that anyone who entered would be arrested, court filings say.
Austria Bueno, a 32-year-old housekeeper who had moved in a few months earlier, came home to find she was locked out. Her family was forced to sleep in a hotel room and on a relative’s floor for four nights until they could explain their situation to a judge and get back inside.
The NYPD declined to comment on the neighbor’s claim or on Bueno’s overall case, as did the Law Department.
The NYPD frequently served closing orders on businesses and homes only to find their targets had already moved out, two attorneys who have worked in the NYPD’s Civil Enforcement Unit have told the Daily News. The attorneys said the unit does nothing to check if targets are still at the places they were seeking to close.
A Daily News/ProPublica analysis of 1,162 cases against both businesses and residences filed over an 18-month period, starting in 2013, supports the attorneys’ claims, finding many had been withdrawn after the order was sought because the offending tenants were already gone.
The analysis found judges approved surprise closing orders more than 70 percent of the time, even though the orders were sought, on average, nearly six months after the last alleged offense.
The analysis also found more than half of the people who were banned from homes or gave up their leases to settle these cases were not convicted of a crime in the underlying police investigation
In response to widespread outrage over the findings, Mayor Bill de Blasio tasked the Law Department and the NYPD with reviewing its nuisance cases to determine if there needs to be any changes to procedures.
“Even as we use the nuisance abatement law as an important tool in making neighborhoods safer, we take seriously the concerns that have been raised and will continually review our processes to make sure that residents and owners of small businesses are treated fairly,” a Law Department spokesman said in a statement yesterday.
The Law Department has said they are working on new procedures to ensure closing orders are only sought in exigent circumstances, and that no innocent family members are locked out of their homes.
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For more about how residents get ensnared by NYPD nuisance abatement cases, listen to the podcast.
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A spokeswoman for de Blasio said Friday that the mayor “will follow the recommendations of the Law Department.” He is not seeking an independent review.
But several lawyers and advocates said an independent review is necessary.
“We certainly wish that [de Blasio] would not defer to the NYPD and not defer to the Law Department on issues where they clearly have no interest in changing the bad behavior that they’ve show so far,” Judith Goldiner if the Legal Aid Society said.
“I think that having the Inspector General’s Office look at this, and or the CCRB (Civilian Complaint Review Board), is appropriate and necessary if the public is going to have faith in what comes out,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.
Bueno, meanwhile, is now suing the city in Brooklyn Federal Court, seeking to have the nuisance abatement law declared unconstitutional.
When Bueno learned the officer was told he had the wrong family, said she was shocked. “That means they don’t care about my family at all,” she told the Daily News.