NYCLU says Cheektowaga’s nuisance landlord law is unconstitutional

CHEEKTOWAGA – The New York Civil Liberties Union, its parent group at the national level, and other state groups are calling on Town of Cheektowaga leaders to rescind its landlord licensing law after the state appellate court found so-called “nuisance laws” unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The Village of Groton in Thompson County passed a nuisance law in 2014 to deal with troublesome properties by creating a point system to identify nuisance properties.

An ACLU amicus brief filed with the appellate court in November 2016 said the local law deprived citizens of due process and created First Amendment issues with the ordinance.

“While the cities may intend to prevent crime with these laws, the reality is that these ordinances result in housing instability for people who are already vulnerable,” said John Curr, III of the Western Region Office of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

On Tuesday, the NYCLU, ACLU, Empire Justice Center, and the NYS Coalition Against Domestic Violence emailed Supervisor Diane Benczkowski’s office a letter calling on the town to overturn its nuisance law.

Cheektowaga’s 2013 law requires landlords of one or more non-owner-occupied dwellings to obtain a free license from the town clerk’s office.  If the police department files a police report for criminal activity or public nuisance activity regarding a dwelling unit, the town council would notify the landlord.  The law gives landlords two chances to address the problem before fines are imposed and a sliding scale for each incident after.

The town’s law defines criminal activity as unlawful activity consisting of drug activity, weapons possession, assault, domestic violence, murder, assault, sexual assault, gang activity or other activity proscribed by the Penal Law of the State of New York.

“The way that we’re looking at this is kind of the same way the state appellate court went after it in June,” said Mr. Curr.  “Someone’s ability to negotiate a new lease or not to be evicted was impacted by the fact that they were victims of domestic violence and that’s where the real fear here is, potential victims or targets of domestic violence are prevented, or they live under the specter of potential eviction, just for reaching out to the police.” 

Cheektowaga Town Attorney John Dudziak tells Cheektowaga Chronicle that his office just received the email late Tuesday and is just scratching the surface on the matter.

“There are a mirrored of issues that the letter poses,” said Mr. Dudziak.  “We’re in the fourth department number one. That letter opines a third department case so I have to look at that and I have to compare that to the town’s real estate law.”

At the end of the day, Mr. Curr says the town can come up with a better way to handle nuisances issues.  

“I think there is enough room in the law to take care of those situations without punishing [victims] in ways that the statute like this did not intend,” added Mr. Curr.

The NYCLU also sent notices to the municipalities of Babylon, Greece, New Hartford, Rome, Troy, Utica, Yonkers, and the Village of Hempstead.

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