New York to pay $15 million in wrongful loitering arrests

NEW YORK Wed Feb 8, 2012 9:35pm EST

A pedestrian walks past a line of New York Police Department (NYPD) cars parked at Times Square in New York, October 18, 2011.   REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

A pedestrian walks past a line of New York Police Department (NYPD) cars parked at Times Square in New York, October 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Hershorn

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City has agreed to pay a total of $15 million in compensation to some 22,000 people who were illegally arrested or issued citations over three decades under loitering laws long ago ruled unconstitutional, according to a class-action settlement.

The city has also promised to help with efforts to clear the arrests and convictions from individuals' records, under terms of the settlement signed this week by a federal judge.

The settlement was the culmination of a lawsuit filed against the city in 2005 on behalf of six men arrested under three anti-loitering statutes even after they were declared unconstitutional between 1983 and 1992 for violating the First Amendment.

The men's lawyers have argued the New York Police Department allowed the laws to be wrongly enforced because they enabled police officers to remove unwanted people from public spaces even if they were not breaking any valid laws, an allegation the city denies.

"They didn't want people panhandling in midtown, unattractive, unsavory people going around being poor in public, so this was a way to get people to move along," said Katherine Rosenfeld, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "They got charged with a law that didn't exist."

The city agrees the roughly 22,800 arrests and citations, some of which ended in convictions, should never have been made under the laws, which prohibited loitering with the intent to panhandle, or in the hope of having sex "of a deviate nature," or from loitering in a transportation facility without a "satisfactory explanation."

But it suggested in a statement on Wednesday the arrests happened because individual officers were misinformed, and because of a broader confusion across the criminal justice system caused by the laws' continued presence in statute books until they were finally repealed in 2010.

Rachel Seligman, an attorney in the city's Law Department, said in a statement the New York Police Department was "committed to maintaining its policy against enforcing unconstitutional statutes."

She said the NYPD has been training its officers that the loitering laws were no longer valid, and that as a result "very, very few charges have been made under the unconstitutional loitering statutes in the last few years."

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who signed the settlement, had earlier found the city in contempt of court in a 2010 ruling in which she criticized what she said was the city's "lethargic approach" to the problem as police officers continued to make unconstitutional arrests in the years after the lawsuit was first filed.

Anyone arrested or issued a citation under the loitering laws after they were ruled unconstitutional is entitled to join the class-action lawsuit, and the city has agreed in the settlement to help with efforts to notify as many of these people as possible.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Cynthia Johnston)

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