Mayor Bill de Blasio commented for the first time Monday on the Daily News/ProPublica’s investigation into the NYPD’s use of the nuisance abatement law to boot hundreds of people from homes, saying while he supports the underlying “concept” of the law to keep neighborhoods safe, he thinks “there should always be due process” and promised to “look carefully at protocols.”
The investigation found judges approved 75 percent of the NYPD’s secret requests for orders that locked people out of their homes before they’ve had a chance to defend themselves, the very definition of removing one’s right to due process, lawyers say.
De Blasio spoke on the issue after being asked about it at an unrelated press conference. De Blasio, who was elected on a promise of police reform, had earlier deferred comment to the NYPD.
But mayoral spokeswoman Monica Klein clarified: When the mayor said, “there should always be due process,” the mayor doesn’t mean he’s opposed to the secret lockout orders.
As for the promise to “look carefully at protocols to make sure that there’s appropriate due process and decisions are made carefully,” Klein said that’s going to be handled by the city Law Department, the agency already tasked with reviewing every filing and settlement agreement in the NYPD’s nuisance abatement actions as the polices’ co-counsel.
“So it’s basically self-policing,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “I believe that there should be sunlight to the protocols to ensure that the rights of tenants are not being abused. And the entity that basically prosecutes these cases cannot be the same entity,” she said. “It’s a conflict.”
James said she has started the process of opening her own inquiry by sending a letter to the administration requesting a meeting, and urging the NYPD to “cease and desist” secret lockout requests unless the occupants pose an immediate danger.
The NYPD has continued to decline requests for comment.
Several sources said the City Council is also in the process of scheduling an oversight hearing on the matter.
Meanwhile, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Brooklyn/Queens, said he plans to forward The News/ProPublica’s findings to the Dept. of Justice as part of a request for a federal investigation into whether the NYPD has a “pattern and practice” of violating the civil rights of minorities.
“The fact that people have been placed at risk of losing their home, thrown out of their apartment, often without a criminal conviction, is shameful,” said Jeffries. “That should shock the conscience of every New Yorker, and merits oversight and review at every level of government.”
Several attorneys told The News the issue is ripe for a class action suit 2014 which is what ultimately pushed the city to reform stop and frisk.
Darpana Sheth, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, said her organization “is looking more closely into it.”
In November, the Institute reached a partial settlement in a class action lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia challenging the constitutionality of some of the exact same practices in its civil forfeiture program.
The settlement vacates all existing closing orders, and stipulates that any new ones must meet strict evidentiary standards.
The settlement also voids key provisions of existing agreements that owners signed in order to get back into their homes or to prevent them from being forfeited. The provisions, identical to ones routine in the NYPD’s nuisance abatement settlements, include banning certain family members from homes, limiting property owners’ rights to defend themselves against forfeiture attempts if accused of wrongdoing in the future, and requiring government approval of any tenants, subtenants or transfer of ownership.
Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, said the city of New York and the courts should create a special process to review all existing closing orders, along with settlements between the police and tenants or homeowners in nuisance abatement cases.
“While it’s good that judges have been told to put the brakes on issuing new closing orders, the courts need to take the next step and review all existing orders,” said Dunn, referring to a notice that the city’s deputy chief administrative judge put out advising judges to limit granting closing orders against residences, particularly when the evidence is stale or based on hearsay.
Dunn added, “The courts have been complicit in this miscarriage of justice, and they need to move aggressively to remedy the situation by voiding any improperly issued closing orders and by voiding all agreements where tenants were wrongly coerced into surrendering rights in their homes.”
He said the NYCLU would wait to see how the city reforms its nuisance abatement actions on its own before deciding what steps the organization would take.
Erin Durkin of the New York Daily News contributed reporting to this story.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.