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Post date: October 4 2002

Spitzer Sues Long Island Village For Unconstitutional And Discriminatory Housing Code Inspections Of Latino Homes

Attorney General Spitzer today filed a federal lawsuit against the Village of Freeport, Long Island, alleging that Village housing inspectors violated constitutional "search and seizure" rules and anti-discrimination laws in conducting housing code inspections of Latino residents' homes. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Long Island, seeks significant reform of the Village's housing code enforcement scheme, including new rules to protect residents from illegal inspections.

The lawsuit follows an 18-month-long investigation by the Attorney General's office of complaints from Latino residents that, since the early 1990s, the Village of Freeport engaged in a pattern of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct in its enforcement of the housing codes. The OAG's lawsuit alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution's prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures and national origin discrimination, the federal Fair Housing Act, and state law.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that, as part of a program to stamp out "overoccupancy" problems in the Village, inspectors bullied their way into Latino residents' homes, failed to obtain valid consent from residents or a valid warrant before searching, used deceptive and illegal tactics to gain entry, used the presence of emergency service personnel in Latino homes to obtain access into those homes in order to conduct wide-ranging inspections.

The AG's complaint cites a host of examples of this conduct in recent years, including instances where:

  • Village housing inspectors pushed their way into Latino homes without cause, without a warrant and without resident consent, in the face of clearly articulated objections by homeowners;

  • Village housing inspectors took advantage of the presence of children to gain access to Latino homes without consent, and without an otherwise sufficient legal basis;

  • Village housing inspectors entered Latino residents' homes by entering through unlocked doors, without a warrant or consent, as the law requires. In many cases, confronted by residents when already inside their homes, the inspectors informed them that the inspections were "mandatory";

  • Village housing inspectors made false statements that they had obtained consent to search, in order to deceive Latino families and thereby gain entry into their homes to conduct inspections;

  • After being summoned to Latino families' homes by police officers who were there on emergency service calls (domestic dispute complaints, ambulance calls, and the like), Village inspectors conducted wide-ranging searches that went beyond the areas within which a search would be proper. In one case, housing inspectors called in by police searched the entire home of a Latino family and photographed a young woman who had just emerged from the shower wearing only a towel.

In addition, review of twenty-two (22) months' worth of data reflecting the Village's inspections has revealed that Latino homes were inspected at rates far in excess of their representation within the Village's population. While Latino households make up approximately 23.7% of households in the Village, 30.7% of housing code summonses were issued to those households. A statistical study commissioned by the Office of the Attorney General concluded that these disparities could not be explained by neutral, non-discriminatory factors. Specifically, Latino households were inspected at rates in excess of the numbers of inspections conducted in non-Latino neighborhoods that have similar housing stock. Further, households in heavily Latino blocks were inspected at rates far higher than households in less-heavily Latino blocks in which the average household size, rental occupancy rates, and the number of fire calls were comparable.

Attorney General Spitzer said: "As a prosecutor, I understand and support the need for aggressive enforcement of the building codes. What cannot be allowed are violations of the Constitution and the laws against discrimination to pursue that goal. The Village of Freeport's treatment of Latino residents undermines the goals of law enforcement. All residents of the Village have rights, and all are entitled to a fair shake from law enforcement. I am committed to upholding the law and reforming the Village's practices, even if it takes litigation and the intervention of the federal courts to accomplish those goals."

The Village of Freeport, located on the South Shore of Long Island in Nassau County, is a community of approximately 44,000 residents, approximately one-third of whom are Latino. Many of these people are new immigrants to the country and/or have limited English proficiency or familiarity with their rights under U.S. law, the complaint says.

The case is being handled in the AG's office by Assistant Attorney General Juan Merchan of the Nassau Regional Office, which is under the direction of Regional Head Ronald Turbin; Assistant Attorneys General Hilary B. Klein, Elisabeth C. Yap, and Lourdes M. Ventura of the Civil Rights Bureau, which under the direction of Bureau Chief Andrew G. Celli, Jr.; Unit Chief Mark G. Peters of the Public Integrity Unit; and Investigators Angel Rivera, Herb Antomez and Jocelyne Martinez of the Investigations Bureau, which is under the direction of Bureau Chief William Casey.