It is not unusual for cities (both large and small) to have nuisance abatement laws that allow for landlords or government officials to evict people from residences when there's chronic illegal behavior taking place there. Often it's tied to the relentless, doomed war against drugs and vice, trying to shut down drug dens and brothels (that exist because of the black market the bans create in the first place, but never mind).
But as the New York Daily News, working with ProPublica, have discovered, New York City's nuisance abatement laws are particularly bad. They're being used to eject people out of their homes by the New York Police Department, but in many cases, the city has failed to prove criminal activity actually happened. They reviewed more than 500 nuisance abatement actions over 18 months in 2013 and 2014 and discovered that half of nearly 300 people who gave up their leases or banned from their homes had not been convicted of any crimes. Of those, 96 had their cases dismissed and 44 faced no criminal prosecution at all.
The Daily News provides plenty of real world examples of how this plays out:
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.
How do the police get away with this? Blame laws from the 1970s designed to clean druggies and prostitutes from Times Square. Police have since expanded the use of the laws far beyond the initial intent. They're enforced as civil matters, often much like what happens with asset forfeiture cases. Not only does the city not have to get a conviction first, making it a civil case means that those facing eviction don't have guaranteed access to a lawyer, unless they can pay for one themselves. And given that the law is primarily used in poor, minority-dominated neighborhoods (only five of the people who were booted from their homes were white), that's not likely to happen.
And there's so much more. One of the officers behind some of the nuisance abatement cases is the "most-sued" officer on the NYPD's force, according to the New York Daily News. He has been named in 32 different lawsuits that have cost the city $1.4 million in payouts. He has been put on desk duty for allegedly fabricating buys from confidential informants to use to get search warrants. In addition, police often ask judges to lock tenants out of their residences immediately as an "emergency," even though there is no evidence that there's any emergency taking place. These actions often take place months after the reported offenses. Many judges simply approve the requests anyway, but some have taken notice and decline, giving residents a chance to appeal.
Read the whole sordid story here. The Daily News tracked down Sidney Baumgarten, the former city official who had the law drafted in the 1970s. Even he thinks it's being abused and described the police department's behavior as "unconstitutional" and "overreaching."