A controversial law that allows the city to shut down businesses and evict people from their homes with no warning has come under fire for being used as a tool of harassment in minority neighborhoods. At a City Council hearing this morning, the NYPD defended the Nuisance Abatement Law but said it would be open to compromises on reforming the program.
The law, created in 1977 to crack down on sex-related businesses in Midtown, has expanded over the years. Now, it allows the city to close shops or remove people from their homes after they have been accused — but not necessarily arrested or convicted — of repeat violations, typically alcohol-sale violations and drug offenses. Nuisance abatement cases are meant to do things like remove persistent drug dealers from an apartment building or shut down a violent club, and often, they do exactly that.
But the issue got on the council’s radar after investigative reports this year by ProPublica and the Daily News showed that NYPD has disproportionately pursued nuisance abatement cases in minority neighborhoods, often employing a heavy hand for seemingly minor offenses. The cases are heard in civil court, where defendants have no right to a lawyer and can be pressured into signing agreements that, among other restrictions, permit warrantless searches by the police or bar individuals and their family members from apartments.
Last month, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and eleven councilmembers introduced the Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act. “This tool has been used in a manner far beyond how the council originally intended it to be used,” Mark-Viverito said at a hearing this morning on the bills, “and in many cases has been used to inflict punishment beyond what is necessary to actually abate a nuisance.”
The city, which is being sued over its use of the law, has secured court orders to evict people based solely on the word of potentially unreliable confidential informants, according to NYPD lawyers who spoke anonymously to the press. Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Lawrence Byrne denied this. “There may have been some mistakes in the past,” Byrne told reporters after the hearing. “We’ll resolve that in the lawsuits.”
Sarah Ryley, who wrote the ProPublica/Daily News stories on the Nuisance Abatement Law, told Byrne she can cite numerous examples where NYPD did exactly what the lawsuit alleges.
Agitated, Byrne gave a more categorical denial. “There’s no instance you can point to where nuisance abatement action was brought or ordered solely on the basis of activities of a confidential informant,” Byrne said. “It’s flat-out wrong, and you’ve misreported that.”
Ryley attempted a follow-up question.
“We’re done here,” Byrne said as he walked away.
While he was brusque with a dogged reporter, the NYPD’s top legal authority played nice with the council today — to a point.
“The police department is open to reforms of the Nuisance Abatement Law and how it conducts its program,” Byrne testified, noting that the NYPD has reduced its use of the law significantly. At the same time, the department either opposes or wants modifications to major parts of the thirteen-bill reform package.
The NYPD has reduced the use of ex parte court orders that allow the police to evict residents or close businesses without providing tenants an opportunity to first make their case in court, but the council reforms would prohibit this type of court order entirely. The NYPD opposes this, claiming it doesn’t want to give an ongoing criminal enterprise the opportunity to clear out evidence.
The council is looking to remove drug possession from the Nuisance Abatement Law, but the NYPD is only willing to consider eliminating marijuana possession for personal use from the list of crimes covered by the statute.
The police department also opposed a council proposal to require four drug sales instead of three to establish a “nuisance.” It also objected to a four-month statute of limitations, which is intended to protect people from coming under the hammer of the law well after the problem has been addressed, but it did open the door for a compromise to “tighten the process.”
Lastly, the department supports a bill to repeal the Padlock Law, a separate statute that allows the police to close a residence or business that has been the site of repeat arrests. NYPD has not enforced this law in over fifteen years.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that NYPD opposes repeal of the Padlock Law. In fact, the department supports its repeal.