City is Held in Contempt of Court for Continuing to Enforce Unconstitutional Law

For years, New York has continually enforced laws prohibiting loitering as a basis for arresting the homeless and the poor for panhandling, sleeping on the streets, or otherwise being present in a public space, despite the fact that these laws were ruled unconstitutional over two decades ago. But in a blatant disregard for that ruling, as of 2007, New York had arrested more than 2,300 people under these laws.

Yesterday a federal judge in Manhattan held the City in contempt of court for failing to stop enforcing these laws, citing the City had “unlawfully enforced the statutes tens of thousands of times,” and that enforcement had been specifically targeted at the poor.

In 2007, a homeless man spent months in a Westchester County jail after being arrested for loitering, just an example of the thousands who “had their constitutional rights violated,” according to Judge Shira Scheindlin of the United States District Court.

In addition to the unlawful enforcement by the police department, the State Legislature has still not rescinded these unconstitutional laws from the books. Judge Scheindlin scolded the State Legislature for this delay in action as an example of its “notorious dysfunction.”

We hope the result of this new ruling will prod both the Police Department and the State Legislature into more meaningful action against the enforcement of these laws. Surely the Judge’s ruling that the City would be fined upwards of $500 for every illegal summons may provide some incentive.