And it’s happening almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods.
THE MORNING OF MAY 4, 2011, Jameelah El-Shabazz watched out the window of her Bronx apartment as a team of police officers fanned across the rooftop of Banana Kelly High School. The 43-year-old mother of five said she didn’t think much of the scene — drug raids were common in her neighborhood.
As she did most mornings, El-Shabazz said she went to her bedroom to feed her newborn son and to worship before a shrine of candles and carvings arranged atop her wardrobe. Her most treasured object was a wooden tray her father had brought her from Nigeria. A deity of the Ifa religion, which she practices as a high priestess, was carved on its surface and covered in a residue of finely crushed eggshells. El-Shabazz used the substance, known in her faith as efun powder, to cleanse the shrine. She took fresh clumps of the powder from a cup and began to break it up in her hands.
That’s when the narcotics officers kicked in the door.
Her baby shrieked as the gun-wielding officers tore apart rooms looking for PCP, which an anonymous informant had claimed was being sold from the apartment. They ordered everyone to lie on the ground, then turned to her eldest son, Akin Shakoor, who along with another son was having frequent run-ins with police. El-Shabazz said the officers told Shakoor if he didn’t give up the drugs, “they would take all of my children away from me and make sure that I was put out of my apartment.”
As evidence, police seized 45 paper cups of the eggshell powder, the sacred wooden tray, and a small amount of marijuana. They arrested El-Shabazz, her teenaged sister Najah El-Shabazz, and Shakoor, then 21, and took them outside past the handcuffed residents of four other apartments that were raided that morning.
Najah was released, court filings say, but Jameelah El-Shabazz and Shakoor sat in cells on Rikers Island for the next week awaiting the results of police lab tests. Finally, the results confirmed what she had told the officers all along: the wooden tray and the 45 paper cups of powder were drug-free. Jameelah El-Shabazz and Shakoor were released from Rikers and fully exonerated.
But El-Shabazz’s battle with New York’s legal system was only beginning. That September, another of her sons called to say the police were back, this time with a lawyer and a court order to seal the Bronx apartment. Her entire family had to leave — immediately.
El-Shabazz was facing a nuisance abatement action, a little-known type of lawsuit that gives the city the power to shut down places it claims are being used for illegal purposes. The case against her was based on the same drug allegations that had been dismissed in May. Incredibly, the filing, signed by a New York Police Department attorney, stated: “recovered during the execution of the search warrant were forty-five (45) paper cups of cocaine.”
The nuisance abatement law was created in the 1970’s to combat the sex industry in Times Square. Since then, its use has been vastly expanded, commonly targeting apartments and mom-and-pop bodegas even as the city’s crime rate has reached historic lows. The NYPD files upward of 1,000 such cases a year, nearly half of them against residences.
Three-quarters of the cases begin with secret court orders that lock residents out until the case is resolved. The police need a judge’s signoff, but residents aren’t notified and thus have no chance to tell their side of the story until they’ve already been locked out for days. And because these are civil actions, residents also have no right to an attorney.
Perhaps most fundamentally, residents can be permanently barred from their homes without being convicted or even charged with a crime.
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.
In partnership with ProPublica, the Daily News reviewed 516 residential nuisance abatement actions filed in the Supreme Courts from Jan. 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Our analysis also reviewed the outcomes of the underlying criminal cases against hundreds of people who were banned from homes as a result of these actions.
- 173 of the people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes were not convicted of a crime, including 44 people who appear to have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever.
- Overall, tenants and homeowners lost or had already left homes in three-quarters of the 337 cases for which the Daily News and ProPublica were able to determine the outcome. The other cases were either withdrawn without explanation, were missing settlements, or are still active.
- In at least 74 cases, residents agreed to warrantless searches of their homes, sometimes in perpetuity, as one of the conditions of being allowed back in. Others agreed to automatically forfeit their leases if they were merely accused of wrongdoing in the future.
- The toll of nuisance abatement actions falls almost exclusively on minorities, our analysis showed. Over 18 months, nine of 10 homes subjected to such actions were in minority communities. We identified the race of 215 of the 297 people who were barred from homes in nuisance abatement battles. Only five are white.
Runa Rajagopal of the Bronx Defenders, who leads a division that represents people in the civil courts, called the practice a “collective punishment” on the entire family of those accused of a crime, “used by the NYPD to exert power and control largely over communities of color.”
The NYPD declined to answer any questions about specific cases.
Officials emphasized that because these are civil cases, they’re handled separately from criminal cases and thus have lower standards of proof.
“The law does not require criminal conviction, does not require [a] particular disposition of a criminal case, does not even require an arrest of anyone,” said Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters in an interview with the Daily News last year.
Additional reporting and research by Barry Paddock of the New York Daily News; and Edwin Torres, Christine Lee, Pia Dangelmayer and Andrea Hilbert, special to ProPublica. Production by Hannah Birch, Rob Weychert, and David Sleight.