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Law
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Law
Five Favorite Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"NYC Law" refers to the legal and juridical dimensions of City public policy. What do the laws say? How have they been interpreted? What is the relationship between laws as written and rules as enforced?
The Context
The sheer size of NYC government requires its extensive legal involvement in countless issues. Over 700 attorneys are employed in the Office of the Corporation Counsel alone. Every major and minor public policy issue has a legal dimension. On some issues -- Charter revision or campaign finance limits, for example -- the legal dimension is paramount.
The Reporter
Margaret Reuter is the managing editor of City Law, the bi-monthly journal on City legal developments published by the Center for New York City Law. She also serves as an adjunct professor at New York Law School. She is reachable at [email protected].

by Margaret Reuter

Civil banishment and a gang-run prostitution ring

(aug-sep '00) Queens Plaza, where the Queensborough Bridge empties and three subway lines converge, has been invaded in the overnight hours with a prostitution ring run by the street gang, the Bloods. The city identified 21 of the prostitutes and pimps and sought a court order of civil banishment, barring the 21 identified from being seen in public in Queens Plaza between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 am. The City claimed that the limitations of the criminal justice system precluded the government from stemming the pervasive lawlessness in the area and so warranted a penalty as severe as civil banishment. The case was brought before Justice Arthur Lonschein of Queens County Supreme Court. Justice Lonschein expressed concern about the level of legal representation for the defense, because only four of the 21 defendants had been found and notified about the lawsuit. The judge worried that the four private attorneys might not up to arguing the grave constitutional issues raised by the City's request. On his own initiative, invited the New York Civil Liberties Union to appear on the defendants' behalf.

Justice Lonschein found that the City had amply demonstrated that the area was overrun with prostitution activity, solicitation of passing vehicles, violent criminal acts between gang members, rival pimps, and competing criminal elements, and that these activities disrupted the neighborhood and damaged legitimate businesses. The court glumly noted that the City1s evidence gave lie to the claim that prostitution is a victimless crime.

Nonetheless, the court found that the City failed to demonstrate how banishing these particular 21 people from Queens Plaza would actually lessen the problem in the areačhow they are the cause of the problem, and, even if they were, why others would not simply replace them. The court ruled that an injunction abridging the right to free movement anywhere in the City is legal only if it burdens the individual no more than is necessary to serve a significant governmental interest. Lonschein explained that a banishment order would be over-broad, prohibiting all presence in the area, whether lawful or unlawful, yet without any proof that it will serve the government's interest in eradicating the trade.

Justice Lonschein opinion was long, detailed, and emotional. He was clearly moved by the City's demonstration of the siege laid by the Bloods in the area. In the end, however, his ruling was unequivocal. The requested remedy was ill-conceived and far too imposing. The city's failure to do the homework necessary to come up with the proof that these 21 particular people deserved banishment was, he said, "breathtaking."

Meg Sounds Off:

Justice Lonschein's heart-felt opinion struck the right balance. The City is right to focus on the rampant crime attacking Queens Plaza. The City is even right to seek novel methods, civil in addition to criminal, to stem such problems.

Prostitutes, upon conviction, are quickly back on the streets. Prosecuting pimps is practically impossible because they assiduously avoid taking money in any public setting that could be viewed by watchful officers. But the City must devise a request that can plausibly attack the crime siege and thereby will warrant the grave consequence of banishment.

Other jurisdictions have successfully obtained similar court orders, for instance where gang-run drug rings have thoroughly taken over a neighborhood. The remedies requested were more precise and more measured.


Sites For Beginners:

  • Center for New York City Law - The site excerpts select reports from each issue of City Law, a monthly journal published by the Center. Critiques of nearly 40 City government-oriented websites (with links). Recommended: analysis of 1989 charter mandate that the City annually assess the condition of its bridges, libraries, public schools, police stations and the like.
  • City Council - Besides profiling its members, the site allows the user to search local laws and explains how a bill becomes law. Searches for local laws and bills have some limitations. For instance a search for "lead-based paint" produced the recent local law, backed by the administration, but not the competing bill offered by council member Michels.
  • New York City's Law Department - Part of the City's comprehensive NYCLink the site provides descriptions of the work of each division. Highlights include the City's 1997 complaint challenging the constitutionality of the federal line item veto, in PDF format, and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty's case for tort reform.
  • New York Law Journal - Best feature: access to full text versions of most cases reported in its pages, most of which are never reported anywhere else (such as on westlaw or lexis). Retrieve and print out the cases reported in the Law Journal by picking "courts on nylj.com" and searching by court. This is a real service, given that compiling your own archive of these decisions had been an arduous task of cutting, pasting, and photocopying. Good links to all kinds of law, business, university, and government related sites.


Other Recommendations:

  • Association of the Bar of the City of New York- Site of the City Bar, organization highlighting its recently issued reports. Now playing: the full text of a report on the City's enormous tort case backlog (more than 62,000 cases) by the Council on Judicial Administration. They critique City efforts in addressing the problem against formidable odds. The site also includes an impressive list of pro bono opportunities for lawyers and law students.
  • The Constitution Society - The Liberty Library has more than 100 classic essays on constitutional government in html, text and pdf format. Features such profound works as Machiavelli's The Prince, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the Constitutional Ratification Debates.
  • NYC Documents at Columbia Univ. - This site links to scores of City related sites and guides users through Columbia's substantial collection of NYC-related materials by category.
  • Independent Budget Office - One of the illuminating features of the site: It will calculate exactly how your tax payments are divided up and spent at each level of government (city, state, and federal) both by broad category and by selected programs. Just input your taxes paid and adjusted income from your tax returns (or you can just estimate them, of course), and it will calculate the results.
  • Public Advocate - The chock-full site of Public Advocate Mark Green -- a good place to look to measure the worth of the office that Mayor Giuliani has targeted for abolition.
  • Citizens Budget Commission - Features recent research papers of the CBC. The latest: comparing the competitiveness of the NYC metro region's transportation infrastructure -- the City's highway and mass transit systems -- to LA, Chicago, Tokyo, London, and Paris.
  • Article 78 - This site provides a useful primer for lawyers and nonlawyers who seek to challenge a City or State action claiming it was irrational, arbitrary or illegal. The site explains how an Article 78 action can be started, though it provides little help with what standards the courts apply to overturn an agency decision. Sponsored by a private law firm, the site has some promotional material, but its primer is "promotion free."

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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