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Brookhaven, N.Y. is a Property Rights Black Hole

In the suburban Long Island town of Brookhaven, N.Y., there has developed a Bermuda Triangle of property rights defined by the three corners: warrantless rental inspections, eminent domain abuse, and civil asset forfeiture.
“There used to be a system in place where you could work with the city to get things fixed. But now, I don’t know, it feels like they’re in it for the money,” says Glen Saviano, property owner and landlord in Brookhaven. “The city is just intimidating people instead of working with us to find solutions.”

Brookhaven residents have seen a rash of needless code enforcement fines, accompanied by little to no explanation.

“Now they’ll just write fines for anything they can imagine,” Glen told the Institute for Justice in an interview. And he’s right. One of Glen’s nearby neighbors, an elderly veteran, received a fine from Brookhaven’s Building Division for having a lawn chair in his front yard. The offending chair was considered “out of season” because the citation was written in the fall. But if the city had attempted to communicate with the owner before fining him, they would have discovered that due to certain health concerns, Glen’s elderly neighbor needs to take a break on the way to his mailbox and back to stop from collapsing in his yard.

Another Brookhaven resident even received a fine of $500 for having a dual-wheel truck in their driveway. “Just because a truck has two extra wheels in the rear that means I’m not allowed to keep it on my personal property? How is that right? I tell you I’m just watching rights slip away around here.”

But the Building Division’s treatment of Brookhaven residents goes even further. Unconstitutional rental inspections have also plagued the town, and more specifically, its landlords and tenants. Rental property owners must allow for warrantless inspections in order to register their rental properties, a process required by Brookhaven city law. But in ATM One, LLC v Incorporated Village of Hempstead, the Supreme Court of New York Appellate Division, which has jurisdiction over Brookhaven, decided that the nearby village of Hemsptead’s inspection regime was unconstitutional “insofar as it effectively authorizes and, indeed, requires a warrantless inspection of residential real property.”

If that weren’t enough to enrage the half-million people living in Brookhaven, how about the recently passed plan to declare the area known as Ronkonkoma Hub “blighted”? The town board recently approved a proposal to hand over the “district centered around a Long Island Rail Road station near Long Island MacArthur Airport” to a private developer.

That development company, Tritec Real Estate, has already commented that they intend to buyout property owners in the area. But what happens when these business and home owners refuse to sell? The threat of eminent domain is all too real in the state of New York, as it received an “F” in the Castle Coalition’s review of New York eminent domain law in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Kelo v. City of New London.

But wait, there’s more!

As a part of Suffolk County, Brookhaven residents have also been targeted with civil forfeiture actions by their own police department. Civil forfeiture allows the government to take property that it merely suspects of being involved in a crime—even when there is no arrest, let alone a conviction. Worse yet, the police departments that seize the property using civil forfeiture often get to keep it, creating a perverse financial incentive to shake down citizens. In New York, law enforcement can funnel up to 60 percent of the money toward their own budgets, earning the state a “D” in the Institute for Justice’s survey of forfeiture laws, Policing for Profit.

Civil forfeiture programs on Long Island currently have $31 million in their coffers with, Suffolk County pulling in $3.2 million. Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, head of the Nassau County police asset forfeiture and intelligence section, likens himself to a modern-day Robin Hood. “I steal from the rich, the drug dealers, to give to the poor, the police.”

But since civil forfeiture cases do not necessitate arrest, criminal charges, or convictions, innocent owners often have money and property taken. Moreover, in New York, citizens must challenge the seizure in court within 15 days or they lose any chance to reclaim their possessions. In these hearings, the burden of proof rests on the owner of the seized property to prove his or her own innocence—flipping the American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head.

Civil forfeiture results in a dangerous corruption of policing priorities—and it is no wonder that there are stories about seized assets being used for corrupt purposes.

It is rare for a single city’s population to be the target of so many different forms of government abuse at once, but it provides a chilling narrative. There is clearly a systemic issue in Brookhaven. The property rights and civil liberties of its constituents are under fire on multiple fronts and there is no sign of the assault slowing down.

The Institute for Justice believes that no one should have to submit to warrantless searches, lose their businesses for economic development, or have their assets unjustly seized just because law enforcement covets it. You can help by telling the Brookhaven Town Council to cease warrantless rental inspections, stop abusing eminent domain, abandon civil forfeiture, and respect the Constitution.

— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice

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