Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
City to Award $15M to New Yorkers Unlawfully Arrested for Loitering
Tuesday, February 07, 2012 - 02:26 PM
About 20,000 New Yorkers who were illegally arrested by the NYPD for loitering will get $15 million as part of a class action settlement approved Monday by a Manhattan federal judge.
After New York state and federal courts struck down anti-loitering laws in the 1980s and 1990s on First Amendment and other constitutional grounds, the police continued arresting people under these voided statutes for more than two decades.
The settlement culminates two cases that had been consolidated in 2008. The first case, filed in June 2005, challenged enforcement of a law against "loitering for the purpose of begging."
In 2008, a second case was filed, which fought enforcement of a law against loitering for the purpose of engaging in "sexual behavior of a deviate nature" and a law against loitering in a transportation facility without sufficient explanation. The arrests occurred between 1983 and this year.
Matt Brinckerhoff, one of the lead lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said most of the people arrested had lacked the resources and knowledge to fight the unlawful charges at the time they were charged under the voided laws.
"They tend to be enforced disproportionately — massively disproportionately — against people who are homeless, people who are poor, people who are on the street," he said.
Brinckerhoff said about half of the plaintiffs had been begging for money on a sidewalk at the time they were arrested. Another large portion, he said, were men who were arrested while standing in a location where gay men were known to meet.
But data collected from the lawsuit showed that the voided laws were being enforced not only by police officers, but by prosecutors and judges as well. Lawyers estimate that about 6,000 of the more than 20,000 plaintiffs were arraigned in court.
"Therefore, a prosecutor actually reviewed this and continued to pursue it, which is shocking," Brinckerhoff said.
Rachel Seligman, city attorney with the NYC Law Department, commented on the settlement, saying the NYPD is committed to its policy of not enforcing unconstitutional statues. "Due to NYPD's ongoing efforts and training, very, very few charges have been made under the unconstitutional loitering statutes in the last few years, and NYPD is dedicated to continuing those efforts in the future," Seligman said in a statement. "Unfortunately, as the statutes remained on the books for years after the courts declared them unconstitutional, all parts of the criminal justice system used them, including prosecutors, defense counsel and the court system, and people from all walks of life were affected. Under the circumstances, the City believed this settlement was in the best interests of all parties."
Loitering was a violation under New York state law, which meant the person charged would receive a summons. Between 12,000 to 15,000 people were given summonses, plaintiffs’ lawyers said, and many of those summonses were upheld by judges.
Monetary relief for each of the class members will depend in part on how much time the individual was detained. Some spent at least one night in jail after their arrest for loitering. Many were also arrested on a warrant after they failed to appear in summons court.
Since thousands of plaintiffs had unknowingly pled guilty to a charge that was no longer valid under state law, lawyers will seek to remove loitering violations from class members' records as part of the settlement.
Brinckerhoff said records of these violations have affected people's access to jobs and housing.
In the next three months, lawyers will be contacting all 22,000 class members who must return a claim form to be eligible for payment.