Dominion of New York

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April 30, 2012

22,000 Were Arrested for It, And It Was Perfectly Legal

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

Katie Rosenfeld

Attorney, Robert T. Johnson — whose office had knowingly prosecuted Wise — of violating Wise’s constitutional rights. As relief, Wise’s attorneys asked the court to  stop the city from enforcing the law and award him damages. They also made the initial steps required to seek contempt of court.

A series of legal victories came almost immediately. The day after the filing of the lawsuit, the Bronx D.A.’s office capitulated, admitting that it shouldn’t have prosecuted anyone under the law and issued a written agreement to stop doing so effectively immediately.  Notices were sent to the Offices of the District Attorneys, to ensure that other New York City D.A.s stopped prosecuting people under the void law too. In addition, for 10 days, the NYPD read notices to officers at roll calls, directing them to cease enforcement. Satisfied that the city would make a good-faith effort to end the misconduct, the judge in the case, Shira Scheindlin, saw no reason to initiate contempt proceedings. She issued an order formerly demanding that the NYPD and the Bronx D.A. stop enforcing the law and she agreed to monitor their compliance. As for Wise’s request for damages, he would have to wait a while longer to learn if he would get any. In September 2005, the city formally denied all 156 of his allegations, indicating that the fight would be protracted.


Confident that there were many more Eddie Wises, Rosenfeld and Smyth spent the next year-and-half working to gather evidence of them. As word of their lawsuit spread through the community, they began collecting and documenting illegal summonses issued to other New Yorkers accused of violating the void law. By late 2006, they’d amassed ample proof the NYPD was still enforcing it. They discovered that since Judge Scheindlin had slapped the agency’s wrist in 2005, officers had issued nearly 800 illegal summonses and over 80 illegal warrants in connection with the void law. Not only were cops continuing to make illegal arrests after 2005, Scheindlin’s 2005 court order didn’t even make them slow down. It was almost as if the judgment never happened. Police had issued almost as many summonses in the 19 months after the 2005 court order as they had issued in the 19 months before it. As incredible as the figures were, Rosenfeld and Smyth weren’t surprised. The NYPD had been enforcing the void law for well over a decade. Why would it suddenly stop now?

Armed with reams of documents proving continued wrongdoing, the attorneys returned to Judge Scheindlin in November 2006. Eager for a contempt judgment, they again broached the subject with the judge, outlining their rationale. In its defense, the NYPD again claimed that it was making a sincere effort and just needed more time. To demonstrate its honest intentions, the agency rolled out another proposal to end its enforcement of the law. “I totally reject that they made a good faith effort,” says Rosenfeld of these plans. “By that point there was a lot they could have done,” she says, noting that they could have fined precinct supervisors. Nevertheless, the court refused to allow Wise’s team to file a contempt motion and, again, ordered the city to stop enforcing the law.

Scheindlin’s rejection sent Rosenfeld and Smyth back to their offices empty-handed. But their bad day in court was not a bad day for Wise. The same day, the NYPD made him an attractive offer. The city would pay him $100,001, if he dropped his class action suit. By his own estimates, Wise earned $10,000 a year from his assorted street hustles and typically carried his net worth in the pocket of a pair of jeans he wore religiously. Wise did what Wise had to do. He took the offer. In the spring of 2007, New York magazine profiled the ex-hustler. He’d opened his first bank account and resigned from his car-parking gig.

I don’t know what the lawyers for the city thought about the case, because they never returned my requests for comment. But if they thought they had found a way to end their legal troubles, they were wrong. Rosenfeld and Smyth were just starting to grasp the scale of what was happening. By now they knew there were thousands of falsely arrested people. Data they received from the Office of Court


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.