or almost 30 years — from 1983 to 2012 — the New York Police Department went about arresting people under laws that state and federal courts had long declared unconstitutional, cuffing and booking almost 22,000 people. In 2010, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin finally held them in contempt of court. Yesterday, she signed an order approving what is effectively their punishment: a $15 million class-action settlement that could generate individual payments of as much as $5,000.
Those arrested were forced to defend themselves in court and even served jail time for completely lawful behavior. The class action settlement also requires the city to help the courts vacate and seal all convictions stemming from the illegal arrests.
“NYPD used these void laws over the past few decades to target people based on poverty, race and sexual orientation,” said J. McGregor Smyth, an attorney from the Bronx Defenders and a lead attorney for the class. “We are happy that the city has finally taken responsibilities for these abuses, agreeing to pay meaningful damages to its victims and to stop its unconstitutional practices once and for all.”
The three unconstitutional laws under which the NYPD made the illegal arrests prohibited people from loitering to panhandle, to search for sex partners or to wait in a bus or train station. Federal and state courts struck down all three of those laws between 1983 and 1993 as violating First Amendment rights, according to The New York Times.
As NYPD officers continued illegally arresting people under the unconstitutional laws, the department made efforts to stop them. It increased communication and training, disciplined some of the officers and conducted an internal investigation, according to The New York Times. However, Judge Scheindlin found the NYPD in contempt of court because, she wrote, they were not proactive about preventing the problem.
“Nearly every measure that the city has undertaken,” she wrote, according to The New York Times, “has been at the direction of the court, the prodding of plaintiffs, and/or under threat of sanctions.”
The attorneys handling the class action lawsuit plan to send a notice to all 22,000 members of the class in about three months.
The New York City case echoes a similar case in Chicago, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s anti-gang loitering law. That law targeted African American and Latino youth who were not engaged in criminal activity and resulted in the arrest of 45,000 innocent people, according to the ACLU, which represented the plaintiffs.
Loitering laws that disproportionately affect blacks remain on the books in the many states and cities. Some have their roots in the anti-vagrancy laws that emerged in the South after the Civil War. Those laws aimed to restore white control over black labor, by ensuring that no blacks were idle. According to A Short History of Reconstruction:
Vagrancy — a crime whose definition included the idle, disorderly and those who “misspend what they earn” — could be punished by fines or involuntary plantation labor; other criminal offenses included insulting gestures of language, “malicious mischief,” and preaching the Gospel without a license.