Federal Class Action Complaint Challenges Unlawful Enforcement of Trespass Laws

The Legal Aid Society filed a federal class action complaint Thursday, January 29, 2010, against New York City and the New York City Housing Authority challenging their unlawful policy of routinely subjecting NYCHA residents and their visitors to unlawful stops and arrests purportedly to enforce the trespass laws. The complaint asserts that police officers indiscriminately stop and arrest people living in or visiting NYCHA residences. As a result, people who have a legitimate and lawful reason for being on NYCHA property, including residents, are routinely detained and/or arrested for criminal trespass. Co-counsel in this case are the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

“Our clients are New Yorkers stopped and arrested while trying to go about their everyday lives. They are visiting friends; dropping off children; or caring for elderly or sick relatives,” said Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society. “NYCHA building residents do not surrender their rights when they sign a lease, and they should not be arrested and drive up the cost of the criminal justice system.”

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York is asking the court to declare the City’s policies and practices unconstitutional and order that they be halted immediately, as well as award compensatory damages to the plaintiffs.

Banks and Seymour James, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice, said that this case could not have been brought without the work of the Society's Criminal Practice whose staff represents clients virtually every day who are stopped, arrested, and charged with trespass under these unlawful circumstances. The information about individual client cases that has been provided to the Criminal Practice's Special Litigation Unit has been critical.

"While the filing of this case will not end these unlawful practices today, we have taken the step of going to court to seek judicial relief to stop this intolerable practice as soon as possible," Banks and James told Criminal trial staff today. "We especially want to thank Bill Gibney and Steve Wasserman who are the lead Legal Aid Society lawyers in this major case."


The New York Times
January 29, 2010
Lawsuit Takes Aim at Trespassing Arrests in New York Public Housing
By Cara Buckley

The relationship between the New York police and public housing residents has long been uneasy, but according to a lawsuit filed against the city and its housing authority this week, it is growing far worse, with many innocent people, including residents, ending up arrested on trespass charges that were later dismissed.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Manhattan, claims that public housing tenants and their visitors are subject to police aggression and unwarranted trespass arrests, especially during so-called vertical sweeps, when officers patrol buildings floor by floor. Sixteen plaintiffs were named in the class-action suit, which was filed by the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

The chief spokesman for the New York police, Paul J. Browne, said officers used the trespassing statute to prevent nonresidents with ill intent, like drug dealers, from loitering in buildings. He also said the police presence in public housing developments afforded residents “a measure of safety that residents of doorman buildings enjoy throughout the city.”

“If somebody lives there, and is not doing something wrong, obviously they shouldn’t be arrested,” Mr. Browne said. “But a lot of people say they’re not doing anything when they’re arrested, and that may not be the case.”

According to Johanna Steinberg, assistant counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, the number of trespassing arrests in public housing rose to 5,841 in 2008, from 4,275 in 2004, an increase of roughly 37 percent. Those figures do not include housing projects on Staten Island.

William Gibney, director of the special litigation unit for the Legal Aid Society, said, “It’s been one of the most frustrating issues for our attorneys in criminal defense. They have seen innocent person after innocent person arrested and put through the system on trespass charges, when the arrests were entirely not justified.”

The lawsuit does not provide statistics on how many of those charges were dropped. The suit traces several trespassing cases that it said were later dismissed. William Turner, 39, a consultant to the New York Department of Education, said he saw his work hours and income plummeted after he was arrested on a visit to a friend in a Manhattan public housing building, despite showing his identification to officers.

Another plaintiff, Roman Jackson, who now works for the Annenberg Foundation in Los Angeles, was arrested last year while chatting with a friend in the hall outside the Manhattan public housing apartment he was then sharing with his grandmother. The suit said Mr. Jackson’s grandmother had showed officers her grandson’s New York driver’s license, proving he lived with her, to no avail.

“The residents are very concerned,” said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society, “and feel like they’re under a state of siege.”

Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for the New York City Housing Authority, said her agency had started addressing residents’ concerns, and last year formed a task force, consisting of residents, police officers and housing authority representatives.

“Certainly there are issues to work through, which we continue to do,” she said.

Ms. Stainback also noted that crime rates had dropped significantly in public housing developments, to the great relief of many tenants, which she attributed in part to the presence of police.

Some tenants and lawyers in the case said the relations between police officers and public housing residents have worsened markedly since 1995, when the Housing Police were integrated into the citywide Police Department. Now, they said, officers are no longer familiar with the buildings or their residents, and often tend to view most people they encounter suspiciously.

“Back in the day, there was the idea of community; officers knew the individuals, they know you live there, they’d say, ‘go home,’ ” said Damaris Reyes, who lives in the Baruch Houses in the Lower East Side, and is executive director of Good Old Lower East Side, a tenants’ rights and preservation group. “Now there’s no rhyme or reason.”

New York Law Journal - News In Brief
January 30, 2010
Lawsuit Challenges Police Searches of Public Housing
Daniel Wise

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Legal Aid Society, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison have filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to enjoin indiscriminate police searches of all residents and visitors in common areas of New York City public housing projects.

In the lawsuit, Davis v. The City of New York, 10 cv 0699, 13 residents and visitors at New York City Housing Authority buildings, as named plaintiffs, complain that the New York City Police Department conducts "vertical patrols" of the developments during which officers indiscriminately stop, search and arrest for trespass residents and visitors alike.

According to the complaint, officers on vertical patrols stop and question anyone they encounter during top-to-bottom walkthroughs of building hallways, stairwells, rooftops, landings, elevators and other common areas. The plaintiffs contend the searches violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and racial discrimination.

Paul J. Brown, deputy police commissioner for public information, said the NYPD's policies are an effort "to afford residents of public housing with a level of security similar to that enjoyed by residents of doorman buildings all over the city."

Celeste Koeleveld, executive assistant corporation counsel for public safety said the office had not yet received the complaint, but "the city and NYPD are aware of the concerns raised in the complaint" and have been "in dialogue" about them with plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs have requested the case be assigned to Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin because its allegations are related to those in a suit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights that more broadly claims the NYPD's search and seizure policies are racially discriminatory, Floyd v. City of New York, 08-civ-01034. Paul Weiss is working on Davis pro bono.