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Class Action Lawsuit Challenges NYPD Patrols of Private Apartment Buildings

The NYPD’s enforcement of Operation Clean Halls, a part of the Department’s stop-and-frisk program that allows police officers to patrol thousands of private apartment buildings across New York City, violates the rights of residents of those buildings and their guests – largely black and Latino New Yorkers – according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and The Bronx Defenders.

The NYPD’s enforcement of Operation Clean Halls, a part of the Department’s stop-and-frisk program that allows police officers to patrol thousands of private apartment buildings across New York City, violates the rights of residents of those buildings and their guests – largely black and Latino New Yorkers – according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and The Bronx Defenders.

“Operation Clean Halls has placed hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “For residents of Clean Halls buildings, taking the garbage out or checking the mail can result in being thrown against the wall and humiliated by police. Untold numbers of people have been wrongly arrested for trespassing because they had the audacity to leave their apartments without IDs or visit friends and family who live in Clean Halls buildings. This aggressive assault on people’s constitutional rights must be stopped.”

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All tenants of the thousands of buildings enrolled in the program and their guests are at a heightened risk of unjustified and unlawful NYPD stop-and-frisks or trespassing arrests. Many tenants who live in Clean Halls buildings are restricted in their ability to maintain familial ties and friendships due to the use of aggressive police tactics in their homes. The program is part of a citywide practice of suspicionless police stops and arrests that primarily impact communities of color.

“The NYPD uses Clean Halls as a license to stop anybody, at any time, on suspicion of trespassing,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Alexis Karteron, lead attorney on the case. “As a result, people who live in Clean Halls buildings are under constant threat of being stopped, frisked, harassed and even arrested by police officers. This type of activity has no place in a free society, and we’re confident the courts will put a stop to it.”

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of residents of buildings enrolled in Operation Clean Halls and individuals who were unlawfully stopped and arrested on trespassing charges through the program. The City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and individual police officers who were involved in unlawful arrests are listed as defendants. It maintains that the NYPD’s enforcement of Operation Clean Halls violates the U.S. Constitution, the New York State Constitution, the federal Fair Housing Act and New York common law.

Plaintiff Jacqueline Yates lives in an apartment building in the Bronx enrolled in the program. Yates’ two teenage sons are regularly harassed by NYPD officers in her buildings’ stairwells, lobby and courtyard. Her friends and family are reluctant to visit her out of fear of being stopped by police and potentially arrested for trespassing.

“My children shouldn’t be treated like criminal suspects in their home. They shouldn’t expect to be bothered by police officers every time they leave our apartment,” Yates said. “I believe the NYPD has a role to play in our community. But right now, they don’t make us feel safe. We feel under attack in our homes.”

Operation Clean Halls has existed in some form since 1991 with the purported purpose of combating illegal activity in apartment buildings, particularly in high-crime areas. In some Bronx neighborhoods, nearly every private apartment building is enrolled in the program. In Manhattan alone, there are at least 3,895 Clean Halls buildings. In a subset of Clean Halls buildings, police officers conduct regular floor-by-floor sweeps, called vertical patrols, and engage in particularly aggressive stop, question, frisk and arrest practices.

The NYPD has no meaningful standards concerning which buildings are eligible for the program. There is no centralized oversight of how the program is enforced, nor is there a single roster of all the buildings enrolled in the program citywide.

Plaintiff A.O., who cannot be identified by his full name because he is 17, was unlawfully stopped and arrested on Feb. 19, 2011 shortly after exiting a Clean Halls building in Far Rockaway, Queens where he was visiting a friend. A.O. was walking with two friends when two NYPD officers stopped them and accused them of trespassing.

The young men attempted to explain that they had been visiting a friend. Before conducting any investigation as to whether the young men had been visiting their friend, one of the officers told the teenagers that they would be arrested for trespassing. The teenagers were taken to the local precinct and charged with criminal trespass. The Queens County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute in all three cases.

“They arrested me even though I was doing nothing wrong – just walking with some friends, minding our own business,” A.O. said. “The arrest was not a mistake. It’s something the police do because they know they can get away with it. I don’t want to let them get away with it anymore.”

“The NYPD’s Clean Halls program impacts the entire community – mothers, fathers, neighbors and
friends – not only those arrested,” said civil rights attorney Chris Fabricant, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Pace University Law School. “This practice has steadily eroded the community’s faith in the police, and undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. For every one of the plaintiffs who spent months fighting their wrongful arrests, there are hundreds of others who were forced to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit because they did not have the resources to attend countless court appearances contesting the charges. Any faith in our justice system is destroyed by this process.”

According to NYPD data, police officers made 329,446 stops on suspicion of trespassing between 2006 and 2010, representing more than 12 percent of all stops. It is likely that police officers made many additional stops on suspicion of trespassing that weren’t reported. Only 7.5 percent of reported trespass stops resulted in arrest. About 5 percent resulted in issuance of a summons. The 10 precincts with the most trespassing stops in 2010 – at least 28,209 stops – accounted for nearly as many stops as reported in the remaining 66 precincts combined. More than 5,000 people were stopped for suspicion of trespassing in the Bronx’s 40th Precinct alone.

“Countless Latino and black youth in New York City have their first encounter with law enforcement shrouded in the false premise that underscores the NYPD’s Operation Clean Halls program – a program that illegally and falsely targets them for the alleged crime of trespass, oftentimes, in their own buildings,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “These encounters and arrests undermine their confidence in the criminal justice system and potentially derails careers and lives with little to no benefit for the public safety of all New Yorkers. Hopefully, this lawsuit will shed light on this continuing problem.”

Since 2007, there have been 16,000 misdemeanor trespassing arrests in New York City annually. Between 2007 and 2010, more than 37 percent of trespassing arrest cases were resolved in favor of the accused. In 2011, prosecutors declined to charge more than 13 percent of people arrested for trespassing in the city.

“Every day, we meet these New Yorkers – sons, mothers, fathers, daughters – caught up in this NYPD dragnet targeting private buildings called ‘Clean Halls,’” said McGregor Smyth, managing attorney at The Bronx Defenders. “From the moment of arrest, they are in danger of losing their jobs, their homes, and even the possibility of citizenship. Today, our clients say the abuses by NYPD must end.”

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the NYPD’s practices are unlawful and an injunction against them. It asks that the injunction require the NYPD and the city to:

  • Stop asking people inside and around Clean Halls buildings for ID or about their destination without suspicion that they are trespassing or engaged in other wrongdoing;
  • Stop arresting people for trespassing in Clean Halls buildings without establishing whether or not the person is authorized to be there;
  • Establish citywide standards for enrollment of buildings in Operation Clean Halls;
  • Implement training for officers who patrol Clean Halls buildings;
  • Establish a system to track and monitor the stops, searches, summonses and arrests made pursuant to Operation Clean Halls; and
  • Award compensatory damages to named plaintiffs.
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