New York City Set to Pass Sweeping Nuisance Abatement Reforms

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This story originally published by ProPublica

by Sarah Ryley, for ProPublica, Feb. 14, 2017, 1:37 p.m.

The New York City Council is expected to pass sweeping changes Wednesday to a law that has allowed the city’s police department to force people from their homes and businesses without warning over sometimes flimsy allegations.

In October, the council introduced 13 bills called the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act in response to a New York Daily News and ProPublica investigation that found the New York City Police Department has abused the decades-old law. The bills are scheduled for a vote on Wednesday, with some minor amendments, and are expected to pass, sources said. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign them.

The city enacted the nuisance abatement law in the 1970s to push the sex industry out of Times Square. Since then, the NYPD has greatly expanded its use, targeting businesses and homes it said were the sites of repeated criminal activity. The agency filed 2,609 of the civil lawsuits from 2013 through 2015 alone.

The Daily News and ProPublica analyzed more than 1,100 cases filed during that period, and found the targets were frequently households with one or more members accused of low-level drug charges, and immigrant-owned shops accused of selling alcohol to underage auxiliary cops. The targets were almost exclusively located in communities of color. In some instances, nuisance cases went forward even after the criminal cases that spurred them fell apart and charges were dismissed.

The NYPD’s in-house attorneys began nearly every case with a request for a court order closing the location without warning, forcing people to negotiate settlements while either homeless or unable to earn a living. Hundreds agreed to undergo warrantless searches of their homes. Families had to ban loved ones, sometimes for life. Shop owners granted unfettered access to surveillance cameras and data-storing identification readers.

The City Council legislation, spearheaded by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, with a dozen cosponsors, would mark the first time the law has been amended to add protections for the accused.

“Reforming the substance of the law ensures that we are protecting tenant and owner rights while enabling the police department to shutter problematic locations in an efficient and informed manner,” Mark-Viverito said, thanking the Daily News and ProPublica “for bringing to light this important issue.”

Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the public safety committee, said the nuisance law is a “powerful tool” for quickly uprooting crime, noting a 2015 council amendment that added the sale of K-2 as a closable offense. “However, it has become clear that the wide and disproportionate usage of this law has negatively impacted law abiding New Yorkers, and New Yorkers of color in particular,” she said.

The council’s reforms would all but eliminate one of the most controversial aspects of the law: The city’s ability to close locations without warning, pending a resolution to the case.

After negotiations with the mayor’s office and the NYPD, the amended bills carve out exceptions only for cases involving prostitution, certain building code violations, and businesses that pose a significant risk of “physical harm” to the public. Businesses serving alcohol without a license could be subjected to a temporary restraining order, but not a closing order.

Misdemeanor drug and marijuana possession would no longer count as a nuisance under the law, and all drug-related cases would require at least one incident personally witnessed by a sworn officer, in order to eliminate cases with confidential informants as the sole witnesses.

The city could no longer bar people from any property for longer than a year, or three years in “unique circumstances,” which would eliminate settlements in which families barred loved ones from their homes for life. Further, the council’s amendments would narrow the allowed settlement provisions to those aimed at abating a specific nuisance, “not to inflict punitive damages or more generally deter bad behavior.” The city could also no longer close a business or deprive any person of property rights if they were unaware of the nuisance.

A spokesman for the mayor said the changes preserve an important tool for keeping communities safe “while ensuring that the rights of individuals are protected and due process is respected.”

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