What happens when two laws that are both intended to protect people come into conflict with one another? Two such laws -- one, protecting young people who have made a mistake; the other, protecting tenants of public housing â€“- collided in the Bronx.
Under New York State law, eligible persons under 19 who are found culpable of criminal conduct, may, in the discretion of the court, be adjudicated “youthful offenders” or Y.O.'s. Their records are sealed to spare young adults who have violated the criminal laws from the stigma and detrimental consequences of a criminal conviction.
Criminal convictions resulting from drug activity on residential properties by people living there, must be reported to the landlords, who must then commence eviction proceedings in Housing Court, under the so-called Bawdy House Law, part of New York's Real Property Actions and Proceedings Laws.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Laura Safer Espinoza, the judge in charge of the Bronx Drug Court has criticized the office of D.A. Robert Johnson, for what she described as the "not uncommon" practice of violating the confidentiality of sealed records by supplying them to landlords.
Manauri R., as the youth was identified, had entered a guilty plea, establishing that the drug violation was at the location where he lived. Despite the sealing of the court records of Manauri R., a youthful offender, prosecutors had, without a court order permitting the unsealing, sent them to the landlord of the apartment in which he was living, with notice that due to a drug case, the landlord was obligated to evict the tenant. The landlord did, in fact, commence eviction proceedings, naming both Manauri R. who lived in the apartment, and the actual tenant, Ms. Qualquirys Tavarez. She had not been convicted or even accused of any drug related activity, but the issue came to light in Housing Court when Tavarez's Legal Services attorney learned the reason for the eviction proceeding against her.
The D.A. argued that it was in the interests of justice to evict persons who use or allow the use of residential or retail premises as narcotics warehouses and factories. Such premises should be inhabited by law-abiding persons. The judge did not agree with the prosecution that every allegation of drug possession in a residential apartment, while prohibited by the penal law, rises to the level of an illegal trade or manufacture or other illegal business, prohibited by the Bawdy House law. It must appear that the premises have been used for the unlawful purposes not in an isolated act, but with some measure of continuity.
While the D.A.'s office acknowledged that releasing sealed records without a court order is unlawful, the prosecution lawyers made arguments rejected by Justice Espinoza that either the records were not sealed or were part of an investigation or were transmitted to the landlord inadvertently. The prosecutors argued that they are not prohibited from providing the landlord with copies of documents from their files, analysis and property clerk vouchers, investigatory or business records. But in her decision, the judge pointed out that, "[s]ealing also includes evidence developed during the investigation that preceded the action, if related to the arrest for its prosecution or to the prosecution itself."
It is unavailing, the judge wrote, "in that disclosure of the records did not contravene the purpose or spirit of the Youthful Offender statute. Rather, [the prosecutors] are asserting that publishing the records does not stigmatize the defendant because the focus is not on the juvenile [but rather] on the adult tenant of record and the misuse and illegal use of the tenant's apartment."
"The People published the confidential records to evict him (Manauri R. the youth) as well as Ms. Tavarez.," who was not accused of drug activity. Still, even after Manauri R. left the apartment, the eviction proceeding continued.
"Violation of sealing statutes has been strongly condemned," said Justice Espinoza. "Use of confidential information regarding a youthful offender adjudication, if improperly obtained, is not permitted. [S]ince disclosure is the exception rather than the rule, one seeking disclosure first must demonstrate a compelling and particularized need for access. However, just any demonstration will not suffice. For it and the countervailing policy ground it reflects must be strong enough to overcome the presumption of confidentiality. In short, without the initial showing of a compelling and particularized need, the question of discretion need not be reached, for then there simply would be no policies to balance."
"The People have failed to offer a 'compelling and particularized showing as to how the sealed records in the instant case are necessary and essential to protecting the public from the evils which the Bawdy House Laws address,'" Justice Espinoza concluded.
Since the eviction proceeding was founded on the improperly released youthful offender record, there was no legal basis for it and it was discontinued.
Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice