Will The Crime of Hallways Finally Be Over?

The New York Times announced a settlement in a lawsuit, which it neglects to name, that would end the “Clean Halls” program, which also goes unnamed, begun in 1991 and subsequently swept into the dreaded “stop & frisk” tactics.

The settlement addressed police stops in and around buildings whose landlords had asked the police to conduct patrols and arrest trespassers under a city-run program. The agreement prohibits officers from approaching, questioning or detaining people merely because they are inside or around those buildings, and forces officers to apply the same constitutional protections there that they are supposed to apply anywhere in the city.

Miserably uninformative, which is unfortunate because if you don’t know what it was, and what was wrong with it, there is an excellent chance that someone will come up with the brilliant idea to start it again some day when the next scare happens and people demand simple solutions. 

The program began as a response to complaints by landlords and residents in uptown Manhattan and the South Bronx that crack dealers were using tenement hallways to store drugs being sold on the streets, storing their supply in building hallways and using apartments as stash houses. They would break the front door to get access to the buildings and have someone stand out front to sell drugs or direct buyers to the apartment where they could be bought.

Landlords and residents were not thrilled with the drug dealing, and demanded NYPD do something about it, the selling, the breaking of doors that landlords had to pay to repair, over and over, and the mess and danger in hallways of buildings brought about by drug buyers.

Contrary to popular belief, crack buyers weren’t the most pleasant and sweet smelling of people. When they needed money to buy crack, and you happened to be wearing a gold chain, there was a decent chance you were in danger. They may have needed medical care and treatment to break their addiction, but that didn’t help someone on the street when a buyer had no money and needed a fix.

So the good people demanded that government fix their “crack epidemic” problem, and the NYPD responded with the Clean Halls Program, which involved landlords signing affidavits authorizing police to seize anyone in the hallways of their buildings as trespassers.

Landlords were mostly in favor of it as a means of cleaning up their problems and costs, and signed the affidavit and put a sign on the front of their building. Even if the landlord wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, he was left with little choice, since the NYPD viewed refusal as tantamount to a landlord admitting that he was part of, or supported, crack dealing. After all, why else would someone refuse to help the cops eradicate crack?

And before you get all outraged, people loved the program:

The program, called Operation Clean Halls, permits police to conduct vertical patrols inside and around private residences, seeking out trespassers and drug crime.

Clean Halls, also known as the Trespass Affidavit Program, began in Manhattan under Mayor David Dinkins’ administration, a time when New York faced widespread homelessness, a faltering economy, and a crack-fueled crime wave. While Dinkins was often criticized during his administration, today he is credited with setting in motion a series of policies that began to turn the city around — including the hiring of thousands of new police officers.

But the problem with the program from the outset was manifest. Merely being in a building didn’t make anyone a drug dealer. If you wanted to visit someone in a building, you could be seized and searched. Even people who lived there would be seized. Cops would wait in stairwells or around corners to pinch anyone who came along. The entire point was mere presence was justification enough.

So judges were outraged by this flagrant violation of constitutional rights? Nah. Not one.* Not a single judge took issue with it. It’s not that the unconstitutionality of seizing someone because a landlord signed an affidavit forfeiting other people’s rights (no, you can’t, but yes, they did) wasn’t argued. It was. And it was rejected. Suppression denied. The savior was the sign out front, that all who enter here give up their constitutional right to be left alone.

Eventually, the program began to fall out of favor, and some judges started refusing to abide the program, but it had done its job, the crack epidemic was dying out. Still, the program hobbled on.

So Clean Halls is now dead? That’s great, more than 25 years after it began. It appeared to be dead a few years ago, when Judge Shira Scheindlin enjoined it as unconstitutional, but then she stayed her own order. Except it’s unclear that it’s dead at all.

The settlement announced Thursday addresses the broader program of stops inside and outside buildings in the Bronx and other boroughs, with the police agreeing to new training and supervisory methods and at least five years of court jurisdiction over the changes.

“A person’s mere presence in or near, entry into, or exit out of a TAP Building does not constitute an objective credible reason to approach,” the settlement says.

That’s remarkably uninformative. Of course, people love “training” as if it’s a magic word that makes a punch sting far less because it comes from a trained fist rather than an untrained fist. Yippee, problem solved! That the settlement restates the law as it existed before the program existed and, technically, every second of every day in between, tells us nothing. They spent nearly 30 years ignoring exactly that. So what’s changed?

In a statement, the city’s Law Department said, “This agreement appropriately balances the public’s interest in effective law enforcement with the need to respect the constitutional rights of building residents and their guests.”

Stephen P. Davis, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said the police would continue to work within enrolled buildings to “properly enforce laws” and “address public safety.”

Ah. So now the cops are going to “properly enforce laws.” Good to hear.

*Non-lawyers and academics ponder where the appellate decisions are that provide the basis for these programs. Trench lawyers shake their heads. These cases never made it to appeal, as they were pleaded out quickly to short-time sentences and the defendants rarely had the funds or desire to fight cases on appeal. Which would you rather do, get out in a month or spend two years in jail awaiting trial, then after losing, fight some more for years, in prison the whole time?

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