An Obscure Law From the ’70s Is Being Used to Toss Innocent People Out of Their Homes

NYPD Chief Bill Bratton
Bratton is a proponent of the actions as part of the “Broken Windows” strategy. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

An obscure law from the 1970s is being used by the NYPD to boot people from their homes and businesses when they are suspected of crimes, often in cases where no charges are ever filed. The move is called a “nuisance abatement,” and there are more than 1,000 such actions a year, nearly half of them residential and many that are permanent evictions, according to an investigation by the New York Daily News and ProPublica. The law has been called a “collective punishment,” affecting whole families if any single member is suspected of illegal activity. 

Nuisance abatement began when the Police Department was trying to get rid of massage parlors and such in Times Square, but its use has since expanded to include mom-and-pop shops and individuals’ apartments. Three-quarters of the cases are filed through secret court orders, on which judges sign off without getting the residents’ perspective. (Technically, the action is being taken against the place instead of the person.) As a result, people get locked out of their homes for days, and have been, on occasion, swarmed by SWAT teams and sent to Rikers Island.

The Daily News–ProPublica investigation reviewed 516 residential nuisance-abatement actions filed between January 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, and were able to determine the outcome in 377 of those cases. Three-quarters of them led to evictions or departures. And the majority of those people turned out of their houses — 173 of them — were not ultimately convicted of any crime, and 44 never even went through any criminal process at all. In dozens of cases, residents — as a condition of being able to return home — agreed to warrantless searches, sometimes indefinitely. Some even agreed to give up their homes if they were ever accused of a crime again. Others faced immense practical difficulties:

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.

This strong-arming, inevitably, has hit minority people hardest. The Daily News and ProPublica were able to identify the races of 215 of the 297 people barred from their homes in these cases. Five were white. 

NYPD Booting Innocent People From Their Homes