The City Council is expected to pass a series of reform bills today that would curtail the NYPD's ability to padlock a private residence or shutter a business over a minor offense or even suspicion of a crime.
Introduced last October, the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act would mark the first reform to a 1970s-era law that was created to help the NYPD bust brothels in Times Square. Under the law, the NYPD can bring a civil suit against a business or individual on the basis of alleged criminal activity. In the majority of cases, the business is shuttered, or the private residence padlocked, upon the issuance of the suit.
The NYPD and City Council have historically supported the nuisance abatement law as an effective strategy for busting drug dealers and illegal nightclubs. When a bad batch of K2 resulted in several overdoses in Bed-Stuy last summer, the NYPD filed nuisance abatement actions against a local smoke shop, and a deli next door.
But the legislation up for vote today is a direct response to recent Daily News and ProPublica joint investigations, which suggested that the NYPD has abused the law, apparently to obtain warrantless search access and bolster its broken windows policing strategy in low-income communities of color. Laundromats, liquor stores and delis have been slapped with steep fines and temporary closures under the law, rigged with heightened surveillance, and threatened with permanent shutdowns. In the case of private residences, families have been barred from their homes on the basis of minor possession allegations.
"The nuisance abatement law is a powerful tool that can swiftly put an end to ongoing illegal activities in our communities," said Public Safety Chair Vanessa Gibson last October. "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."
The City Council reforms, spearheaded by City Council Speaker Melissa-Mark Viverito and supported by Mayor de Blasio, would bar civil court judges from permitting the NYPD to padlock a private home or business based solely on NYPD allegations. Instead, civilians would have a chance to appear in civil court first.
Another bill would change the definition of a "nuisance" to strictly the sale of drugs, rather than sale or possession. In one case highlighted by the Daily News, a 53-year-old man was permanently barred from his family home based on allegations that he sold crack out of the apartment. The NYPD's only evidence to that effect was a Ziploc bag of crack, two pipes, a plate with crack residue, and a weed grinder recovered during a search. (The laws would also prohibit the city from banning a person from his or her home for more than three years, maximum.)
Under the legislation, the NYPD would be required to document its application of the law, including a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of nuisance cases which reports suggest will reveal racial biases. Ninety percent of the sample of commercial cases reviewed by the Daily News and ProPublica took place in minority neighborhoods.
ProPublica this week laid out a handful of exceptions, negotiated with the NYPD since last fall:
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.
New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn said that he was particularly pleased with the private residence provisions, including one that would require the Law Department to verify the occupancy of any person accused of some "nuisance" before filing civil action. In the past, he said, the NYPD has been known to bar the wrong tenants from an apartment.
"We fully support the package," Dunn said. "Our major concern had been about the residential evictions that were taking place, and those are largely going to be barred."
"The exceptions that were created, we'll have to see how they are applied, but businesses typically have the resources to defend themselves," he added. "Our concern was about the conduct against someone who might not even be the home owner."