Just days before Christmas in 2013, Sung Cho arrived at his laundromat in Manhattan to find a bright orange eviction notice on the window. The NYPD had targeted Sung for eviction under New York City’s “no-fault” eviction law, which allows police to shutter properties simply because a crime occurred on the premises.
In Sung’s case, undercover police had come to the laundromat months earlier and asked customers and other members of the public if they wanted to purchase stolen electronics. Two people took the bait. Neither person had any connection to Sung’s business.
The NYPD alleged no wrongdoing whatsoever by Sung or his employees. Instead, the laundromat was threatened with eviction because it happened to be the location of these alleged stolen property offenses. Sung raced to prepare for a hearing, scheduled for Christmas Eve, at which he would have to convince a judge that his business should not be closed. But the most obvious defense that Sung might raise—that he did nothing wrong—was irrelevant under the city’s law.
Then the NYPD made Sung an offer he unfortunately could not refuse: The NYPD would lift the threat of eviction so long as Sung signed an agreement waiving various constitutional rights. Under the agreement, Sung would allow warrantless searches of his business, give police unfettered access to his video surveillance system and allow police to impose fines and sanctions for future alleged offenses without any prior hearing before a judge.
Sung’s case is part of a broader phenomenon. An investigation by ProPublica and the New York Daily News covering just an 18-month period, from January 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, found hundreds of no-fault eviction cases in which people were forced into agreements waiving their constitutional rights.
Now, Sung has joined with IJ to file a federal class action lawsuit to invalidate these coercive and unconstitutional agreements. Sung is joined by two other New Yorkers, David Diaz and Jameelah El-Shabazz, who were forced under threat of eviction to sign agreements kicking family members out of their apartments.
The basis for our lawsuit is simple: The government should not be using the threat of eviction to force people to waive their constitutional rights.
IJ raised a similar claim in an earlier class action lawsuit challenging Philadelphia’s civil forfeiture machine. As regular readers of Liberty & Law may recall, Philly used civil forfeiture to coerce Chris and Markela Sourovelis into an agreement excluding their son from their home. It is no accident that New York’s no-fault eviction law raises many of the same issues as civil forfeiture.
No-fault eviction is essentially civil forfeiture for people who rent, rather than own. Just as with civil forfeiture, police can target a home or business simply because it is somehow connected to an alleged criminal offense.
With this lawsuit, IJ is extending the fight against civil forfeiture to a new frontier. Regardless of whether someone rents or owns, nobody should lose their home or business without being convicted of a crime.