The NYPD is bringing hundreds of civil lawsuits against the owners of laundromats, liquor stores and delis in low-income neighborhoods, in an apparent effort to obtain warrantless search access and bolster its broken windows policing strategy.

The Daily News and ProPublica today published an investigative report on the phenomenon, which has been heralded as an effective strategy for busting up illegal nightclubs, delis allegedly selling K2, and liquor stores allegedly selling to minors. Today's report suggests that it's also had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income immigrant families, whose businesses have been slapped with steep fines and temporary closures as a result of these suits, rigged with heightened surveillance, and threatened with permanent shutdowns.

"You never see the white bar owner from the Meatpacking District in here," a civil court judge, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters. "It's always some bodega owner from Uptown. It's a complete double standard."

Based on analysis of 646 cases filed by the NYPD against businesses between the beginning of 2013 and mid-2014, the scenario goes something like this: first, a store patron engages in an illegal transaction, often with an undercover police officer (in one instance, a man paid an undercover cop $200 for stolen electronics inside an Inwood laundromat). With a few such transaction on the books, the NYPD has the grounds to issue a nuisance abatement action, a circa-1970 law that empowers the NYPD to bring to court any business owner allegedly harboring illegal activity.

In the vast majority of these cases (70 percent of those reviewed for the report) the NYPD quietly acquires a judge's order to close the business while the case is being decided. These orders go into effect even before the store owner appears in court, putting working-class store owners in a bind. From ProPublica:

Once served with nuisance abatement actions, business owners are faced with a choice. They can fight the case and remain shut down until it's resolved, earning no income. Or they can agree to the NYPD's demands, sign a settlement, and reopen. As a result, cases tend to get resolved very quickly.

In the case of the Inwood laundromat where an undercover sold stolen electronics, the owner ultimately agreed to a $2,000 fine, new security cameras that the NYPD can access at will, and warrantless searches. If a patron commits an alleged crime inside his business again, he's subject to a closure of 30 days up to an entire year, and fines up to $15,000.

A similar law, called the Padlock Law, also leverages the threat of a shutdown, but the bar is much higher—three arrests, at least one resulting in a conviction, must take place at the store in a single year. What's more, police can only shut down the store after an administrative hearing with all parties present. But Robert Messner, who heads the NYPD's Civil Enforcement Unit, told ProPublica that the last time the Padlock Law was applied was "15 years ago maybe," and that the nuisance abatement approach is "a simple and elegant" alternative.

Some additional takeaways:

  • Ninety percent of the commercial cases reviewed for this report took place in minority neighborhoods; 67 businesses in 34th Precinct in Washington Heights were slapped with civil suits.
  • The NYPD's nuisance abatement cases over selling alcohol to minors were concentrated in East Harlem, Inwood, Washington Heights, and Flushing. Precincts in the East Village, Lower East Side and Bushwick—with larger white populations—saw as many, if not more, alcohol-related violations, only a handful of which became nuisance abatement cases.
  • The majority of the nuisance abatement cases in East Harlem during the investigation period were filed by one cop, Officer David Ross, who would apparently walk from store to store with an undercover minor, collecting as many as ten violations in a single day. He was recently promoted to Detective.
  • On top of nuisance abatement fines, liquor stores and delis are often slapped with steep fines from the State Liquor Authority. After a recent sting, the owner of Mi Mexico Mini Market in East Harlem paid $8,500 to the state, followed in quick succession by a $2,500 fine to the city.

The NYPD's nuisance abatement tactics are not new. Police Commissioner Bratton embraced nuisance abatement—which was established to clean up prostitution in Times Square, and used to be handled primarily by city lawyers with proof of crimes at businesses—during his first run as NYPD commissioner in the 1990s. In 1995, he called it "probably the most powerful civil tool available to the police."

Earlier this year, ProPublica and the Daily News investigated the NYPD's sweeping application of the law at private residences. In many cases, they found, nuisance abatement has barred families from their homes over the arrest histories of current, sometimes even former, residents.

Mayor de Blasio defended the practice as a community safety measure, and the NYPD stated that it would amend its approach to avoid locking out residents who had never been accused of a crime.

As for the commercial cases, top City attorney Zachary Carter praised the tactics the NYPD is implementing. "The commercial nuisance abatement program... has enjoyed widespread support from affected communities and their elected representatives," he said in the statement.