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NYCLU: Troy’s nuisance law is unconstitutional

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NYCLU: Troy’s nuisance law is unconstitutional

The city of Troy’s nuisance ordinance is unconstitutional and should be rescinded, the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a letter sent earlier this year to Mayor Patrick Madden and the city council.

The ordinance, like similar laws in cities across the state, allows for the assessment of “points” against the owner of any property where certain violations of the law are alleged to have occurred. If a certain amount of points are accrued within a year or two, following a court hearing where the city must prove that the violations more likely than not occurred, the mayor may order the closure of a building or business.

Nuisance points can be accrued for a range of offenses, from unlawful firearm possession (eight points) to failure to comply with the city’s recycling ordinance (three points). Racking up a dozen points in one year allows the mayor to take action.

Purportedly intended to curb the negative neighborhood impact of long-term problem properties, the ordinance may also punish residents for calling the police, according to the NYCLU.

The risk of a future building shutdown and consequent eviction may discourage victims of domestic violence and other crimes from contacting law enforcement, the NYCLU says. Troy’s law doesn’t distinguish between crimes committed by tenants and crimes against them.

Scout Katovich, an NYCLU legal fellow, said domestic abuse victims’ finances often rest in their abusers’ hands, so it becomes difficult for them to get back on their feet once they lose their home.

“It creates this horrible catch-22 situation when someone has to choose between their housing and their safety,” Katovich said in an interview with The Alt.

Last year a state appellate court struck down a Tompkins County town’s nuisance law. The NYCLU and other groups filed an amicus brief in that case, according to a press release. In its letter to Troy’s mayor and city council, the NYCLU drew parallels between the now-voided law and the one still in effect in the Collar City.   

“The ruling did not depend on the way that Groton”—the Tompkins County town—“had actually enforced the ordinance,” the NYCLU said in its letter to Troy’s leaders.

Recent legislative change

In Troy, the police department maintains a spreadsheet to track points assessed against properties, the mayor explained at a city council meeting on June 7. If points exceed the law’s limit, the case is referred to the corporation counsel’s office for potential prosecution.

Mayor Madden described this process during a debate about a recent proposal, backed by his administration, to alter the time limit for scheduling a hearing to determine the fate of a property alleged to have exceeded the points limit, extending it from 60 to 120 days after the most recent violation.

The mayor and a part-time city attorney, Rick Morrissey, said the legislation would afford the city more “flexibility” in how it proceeds with cases. The “vast majority” of cases are resolved before a hearing is held, Morrissey said.

“Our goal is not necessarily to shut buildings down,” the mayor said at the meeting. “Our goal is to change the behavior of certain property owners.”

The city council voted 4-3, along party lines, to adopt the measure.

The legislative change appears unrelated to the NYCLU’s critique, which was not mentioned during the meeting. The mayor’s office did not provide comment for this article.

City councilman Mark McGrath, whose district includes the North Central neighborhood, was the most outspoken opponent of the amendment at the June 7 meeting.

“If there’s drugs, these places have to be boarded up,” he said in an interview with The Alt. “We have to protect our residents in the city of Troy. There’s no other way to do it.”

Neighbors of problem properties want to see them shut down immediately, McGrath said, so the time extension seems counterproductive.

The city’s nuisance law was among the local topics discussed at an “educational forum” held by the NYCLU at the Oakwood Community Center on June 13.

 

Luke Stoddard Nathan contributed reporting.

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