Owners interviewed for this story, all first- and second-generation immigrants, say they felt entrapped and then strong-armed into signing settlements with steep fines and onerous conditions. The stipulations often allow for sweeping surveillance, such as warrantless searches and unbridled police access to video cameras. They also permit the NYPD to automatically fine and padlock a store should another allegation arise — all without giving merchants the opportunity to defend themselves in court.
An examination by the Daily News and ProPublica of 646 cases filed by the NYPD against businesses over an 18-month period beginning in 2013 found:
Nine out of 10 nuisance abatement actions were against businesses located in neighborhoods where most of the residents are minorities.
The majority of the cases, 58 percent, involve alcohol violations, often against bodegas or liquor stores accused of selling to underage buyers working for the police. A large share of the alcohol cases were concentrated in just a few police precincts. Other precincts in the city with equal or more underage alcohol sales were rarely hit.
Merchants often endure a kind of double jeopardy. By law, the NYPD forwards every arrest or summons for alcohol violations to the State Liquor Authority, which can issue thousands of dollars in fines and revoke a business’ license to sell alcohol. The NYPD can then also bring nuisance abatement actions based on the same allegations, but only does so against some businesses.
The police begin nearly every case with a secret application to a judge requesting an order closing the business while the case is being decided, and before the owner has had the opportunity to appear in court. Judges approved the closure requests 70 percent of the time.
By law, the first court date must come within three business days after the order has been served. But the NYPD frequently files its closure requests on Thursdays or Fridays, forcing shops to stay closed through the weekend and causing a greater loss of income.
NYPD lawyers justify these emergency orders by claiming the illegal activity at the location is ongoing and poses an immediate threat to the community. But the Daily News and ProPublica found the NYPD didn’t get around to filing cases until, on average, five months after the last offense cited.
Most cases resulted in settlements, 333 of which allow the NYPD to conduct warrantless searches. In 102 cases, the owner agreed to install cameras that the NYPD can access upon request. Another 127 settlements require storeowners to use electronic card readers that store customers’ ID information, also available to the NYPD upon request.