There’s a decades-old law that has been written and rewritten so many times that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is able to use it for their own gain, kicking residents out of their homes regardless of if they committed a crime or not.
It all started back in 1977. In order to combat sex-related businesses in Times Square, the nuisance abatement law was created, which allowed officers to seize a building or business in an “emergency” protocol. This needed to be signed off by a judge, and then could move forward with their investigation and arrest people committing crimes.
In the years following, the law has been greatly expanded upon, allowing officer to target one- or two-family homes and to target anyone regardless of whether or not they have been convicted of a crime—just so long as some illegal activity had occurred on the property. According to the report, the NYPD files upward of 1,000 of these cases a year, and nearly half of those are against residences.
“The process has remarkably few protections for people facing the loss of their homes,” ProPublica reports. “Three-quarters of the cases begin with secret court orders that lock residents out until the case is resolved. The police need a judge’s signoff, but residents aren’t notified and thus have no chance to tell their side of the story until they’ve already been locked out for days. And because these are civil actions, residents also have no right to an attorney. Perhaps most fundamentally, residents can be permanently barred from their homes without being convicted or even charged with a crime.”
To make matters worse, ProRepublica's research showed that this almost exclusively affects minorities: “Over 18 months, nine of 10 homes subjected to [nuisance abatement 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.”
Because people have such a hard time navigating their way through an ordeal such as this without an attorney, most people tend to just do what the prosecuting attorney tells them to do, which usually ends with them barring someone from entering their home (such as a family member or spouse) or giving up their lease.
“By law, people affected by temporary closing orders have a right to a court appearance within three business days,” ProRepublica explains. “But they could wait as long as five days if their court date would otherwise fall on a weekend. At the courthouse, the NYPD’s attorney usually offers to settle the case without going to trial — often by requiring tenants to bar specific people from their homes or to give up their leases. Then the closing order is lifted.”
However, if tenants want to fight the abatement, “they may not be allowed to go home until the case is resolved. Though cases rarely go to trial, settlement negotiations can take weeks.”
Sidney Baumgarten, a former city official who helped commission the drafting of the nuisance abatement law in the 1970s, told ProRepublica that he believes the law is being abused.
“I think it’s wrong. I think it’s unconstitutional. I think it’s over-reaching,” Baumgarten said. “They’re giving up their constitutional rights. And why? Because they’re afraid they’re going to be evicted from their home, with their children. There’s a certain amount of compulsion, and threat and coercion, by the very nature of the process they’re using.”
The stories of the people that this law has affected reach far and wide, and tend to paint a terrifying story for those living in New York City:
“A man was prohibited from living in his family home and separated from his young daughter over gambling allegations that were dismissed in criminal court. A diabetic man said he was forced to sleep on subways and stoops for a month after being served with a nuisance abatement action over low-level drug charges that also never led to a conviction. Meanwhile, his elderly mother was left with no one to care for her.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence that this law is, in fact, being abused, not everyone is willing to give up this law the way it is written.
“I’m protecting the kid who wants to go to school and shouldn’t have to walk past the drug dealer’s door every time. I’m protecting that kid’s grandmother,” Robert Messner, who heads the NYPD unit that issues the abatements, told ProPublica. “I’m not as concerned about the drug dealer. If the guy ends up in a homeless shelter, yes, I’m sorry he ended up in a homeless shelter. But if that’s what it takes so that a whole generation of kids can grow up and whose parents can’t afford to send them to fancy schools, if that’s what it takes, I’m okay with it.”
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