(ProPublica) The New York Police Department got an order kicking a family of four out of their Queens apartment by telling a judge it was a drug den, but the dealers had moved out seven months earlier.
A lawsuit to be filed in Brooklyn Federal Court on Tuesday details an egregious case of the NYPD’s use of the nuisance abatement law — a controversial tool in which cops are able to get a temporary order barring people from their homes without first giving them the opportunity to appear before a judge.
The bungled operation left Austria Bueno, 32, a housekeeper, crashing at a hotel and on a relative’s floor, beside her two sons and husband, for four nights, as they waited for their first court date.
“Everybody cried. Me, I was crying like a baby,” said Bueno. “I don’t deserve that. My kids don’t deserve that either.”
Her lawsuit, which cites the Daily News and ProPublica’s ongoing investigation into the NYPD’s misuse of the nuisance abatement law, seeks to have the legislation and its provision for secret lockout orders declared unconstitutional.
A new analysis by the Daily News has also found the number of cases filed by the NYPD has dropped substantially since the first investigation was published in February.
Bueno’s ordeal began before she even got to the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Police say a confidential informant purchased crack at her future apartment twice in January 2015. A subsequent search turned up crack, weapons and $21,500.
Bueno and her family moved into the apartment months later, in August 2015.
On Dec. 11, a Friday, Bueno returned home after picking up her sons — ages 6 and 15 — from school to find a stack of legal papers and two neon-colored stickers taped to her door saying anyone who entered would be arrested. She was told to come to court the following Tuesday.
That night, the Bueno family slept at a hotel for $208. The following three nights, the family slept on the living room floor of her mother-in-law.
Bueno said she missed three days of work, resulting in a reduced paycheck. Her husband also missed work, and her youngest son was unable to attend school one day because he couldn’t retrieve a clean school uniform.
Bueno’s suit alleges that the NYPD did not even bother to contact New York City Housing Authority to find out if their targets still lived in the home they were asking a judge to close — despite filing the request 10 months after the search. The NYPD still claimed the apartment “is currently being operated, occupied and used illegally.”
A police spokesman declined to comment.
Bueno said she called 911 the night she was locked out, then went to the NYPD’s housing precinct stationhouse the following day, but was told both times she had to wait until her court date on Tuesday. She said she went to court a day early, but was told the same thing.
After her lawyer explained the situation at her first court date, Bueno was allowed back into her home. Rather than apologizing for the mistake and dropping the case, the NYPD’s attorney dragged it on for three months in an effort to get Bueno to sign asettlement waiving her right to sue, the lawsuit says. She refused.
“When they have to do something like that they’re supposed to know one hundred percent that the person they’re still looking for is still living in the apartment,” Bueno said.
Her suit also seeks unspecified damages.
“We believe that this is an unlawful process,” Bueno’s attorney, Robert Sanderman of Queens Legal Services, said. “Literally people are being evicted and their life is being destroyed based on mere allegations that are hardly ever verified. “It just flies in the face of the Constitution.”
City Public Advocate Letitia James — who wrote a letter to city Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter slamming nuisance abatements following the Daily News’ coverage — was outraged by Bueno’s ordeal.
“It is disgraceful that the city is displacing people from their homes without due process,” James said.
In response to the Daily News and ProPublica’s investigation, Carter, said last month that his office would review its nuisance abatement procedures to ensure that secret lockout orders “would only be used in cases of appropriate urgency,” and would not apply to household members who haven’t been accused of a crime. (A spokesman for the Law Department declined to comment on suit.)
Bueno, who pays $792 per month for the two-bedroom apartment, says she’s ready to move out because people keep knocking on the door at odd hours — presumably hoping to score drugs.
“My son, my family — they’re very scared,” she said.
Meanwhile, the number of nuisance abatement actions filed by the NYPD has dropped significantly since the Daily News and ProPublica’s investigation.
The NYPD filed 28 nuisance abatement actions in state supreme courts between when the investigation was first published on Feb. 4 and April 11.
The NYPD filed 161 cases during the same time period in 2013, and 101 during the same time period in 2014.
The NYPD has filed just two nuisance abatement actions since March 25, when the Daily News published a follow-up that quoted two former attorneys in the NYPD’s civil enforcement unit, which handles such cases, saying the unit had no requirement or procedure to independently verify the claims it files in nuisance abatement actions, or to even check if anyone is still living in the house it is seeking to close.
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