J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · October 12, 2016

New York—On a cold December morning three years ago, Sung Cho showed up to open his laundromat business in Manhattan and found a bright orange eviction notice attached to the window. The notice said he had just a few days to prepare for a hearing—scheduled for Christmas Eve—where he would have to convince a judge that his business should not be closed. Sung soon learned that he was threatened with eviction because undercover New York police officers came to the laundromat and offered to sell stolen electronics. Two people took the bait, though neither had any connection to Sung’s business.

Sung was the target of the NYPD’s no-fault eviction program, which punishes businesses and residents when somebody else—even a total stranger—commits a crime on or near their property. The program allows the NYPD to evict tenants, no conviction required.

Neither Sung, nor his business or employees were implicated in the sting. But that didn’t matter, as innocence was not a defense under the city’s ordinance. Sung could be evicted simply because his business was the site of a crime.

With the threat of eviction looming, the city made Sung an offer he could not refuse.

The city would drop the eviction action if Sung agreed to three demands: waive his Fourth Amendment right against warrantless searches, grant police unlimited access to his security camera system, and allow NYPD to impose future fines and sanctions for alleged criminal offenses at the business without any opportunity for a hearing before a judge. Faced with no other option, Sung signed the agreement.

Sung is one of hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught in the city’s lumbering and incompetent no-fault eviction machine, which robo-files eviction notices against innocent tenants in an effort to coerce them to waive their constitutional rights.

But today, Sung and two other victims are fighting back. They have partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to to file a federal class-action lawsuit challenging the city’s unconstitutional use of no-fault evictions to coerce tenants to waive their rights.

“This lawsuit seeks to vindicate a simple principle,” said IJ attorney Robert Everett Johnson. “The government shouldn’t be using the threat of eviction to force people to waive their constitutional rights. What happened to Sung could happen to any business that opens its doors to the public. If government can use these arm-twisting tactics to circumvent the constitution, nobody’s rights will be safe.”

Sung is joined as a plaintiff by two other targets of no-fault eviction actions—David Diaz and Jameelah El-Shabazz. Facing eviction, David was forced to exclude his brothers from his apartment, while Jameelah was forced to exclude her son. Neither David, Jameelah, nor their respective family members were accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one.

The lawsuit has been filed as a class action, and it seeks to invalidate similar waivers of constitutional rights exacted by the city in other no-fault eviction cases. In cases involving property owners, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution limits the government’s ability to coerce individuals to waive their property rights. This case seeks to extend that principle to individuals and business owners who rent, rather than own, a property.

“Just because someone rents, rather than owns, a property does not diminish their constitutional rights,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Darpana Sheth. “New York is treating renters like second-class citizens. No one should lose their constitutional rights, including their right to property, without being convicted of a crime.”

New York City’s no-fault eviction ordinance was enacted in the 1970s in an effort to shut down businesses actively abetting illegal activity. Since then, the city’s policing priorities have shifted and now hundreds of innocent New York residents and businesses have found themselves caught in the city’s bureaucracy, which churns out hundreds of no-fault eviction cases every year using hastily-assembled, robo-filed form documents.

“New York City’s robo-filing bureaucracy is a blunt instrument that started with good intentions but now tramples on people’s rights,” said IJ attorney Milad Emam. “What New York City is doing to its residents is beyond unethical—it is unconstitutional,”

“I did nothing wrong,” said Sung. “My employees did nothing wrong. But the government treated me like a criminal and threatened to shut down my business. And for what?”

The Institute for Justice is a non-profit, public interest law firm that fights for property rights nationwide. In addition to this case, it fights other property rights abuses including civil forfeiture and eminent domain abuse. In a class action against the City of Philadelphia and its law-enforcement agencies, IJ ended the a similar practice by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in coercing property owners to waive constitutional rights. The Institute is joined as local counsel by Ana-Claudia Roderick of Golenbock, Eiseman, Assor, Bell & Peskoe LLP.