Busted Out

When city detectives searched for the secrets hiding in Máximo Peréz’s bedroom closet this past winter, they found small plastic baggies, more than 50 of them, along with a $60 digital scale, a quarter ounce and more of cocaine and, under the bed, wrapped in cloth, a .25 caliber pistol. It was all tough-to-dispute evidence of the young Peréz’s foray into the neighborhood drug trade, a small business he ran from his mother’s time-worn Lower East Side tenement apartment.

Now Máximo, 22, is serving a year-and-a-half sentence upstate. And his mother, Luz Peréz, a 54-year-old church chaplain, has been evicted from her $510-a-month rent-stabilized apartment for his crime.

“I didn’t know. I don’t do drugs,” says Luz Peréz, packing up her life into cardboard boxes days before her eviction from the apartment she’s lived in for decades, eyes puffy with tears. “I have no boyfriend. I have no husband. My son is in prison. Now I get kicked out in the street like I am not a person.”

Since 1996, public housing residents nationwide have been subject to a federal “one-strike” law evicting them or anyone in the household involved in drug dealing or other illicit activity. More quietly, however, for most of the last two decades, prosecutors in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office have pushed to evict thousands of tenants in private apartments, too. And more recently, as in the case of Luz Peréz, Housing Court judges are granting evictions even when the leaseholder seemingly isn’t connected to the crime at all.

It didn’t matter whether or not Peréz knew about the drugs in her son’s closet, Cyril Bedford, a city Housing Court judge, ruled in a controversial decision this August. “It’s scary,” says Maya Grosz, supervising attorney at the Harlem-based Neighborhood Defenders Association. Grosz notes that in the past, lawyers arguing for eviction were pressed to show a judge that at the very least a tenant had either “knowledge” of or “acquiescence” to a crime.

Other judges are now free to use Bedford’s ruling to justify evicting tenants who have no clue that illegal activities are happening in their apartments. But if someone doesn’t know about a crime, advocate lawyers wonder, how can he or she prevent it? “Where’s the due process?” asks Grosz.

The Bedford ruling has put a rare spotlight on the District Attorney’s Narcotics Eviction Program (NEP), designed in the late 1980s by Morgenthau to banish drug dealers who had burrowed into apartments and turned them into drug dens.

As law enforcement, the program has been remarkably effective: Most tenants choose to vacate on their own. When NEP cases do come to court, the D.A.’s office estimates that it wins win 98 percent of its evictions.

That’s an impressive batting average. Drug-infested buildings have been cleared almost single-handedly. In some cases, the D.A.’s office reports, entire city blocks have seen crack dens and drug slums disappear. But as the city’s number of drug convictions continues to decline, both NEP coordinators and advocacy lawyers say they are finding that many of the tenants they seek to evict are not associated with heavy drug dealers at all, as was once the case. And their families, often blind to the crime, are the ones getting punished.

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The Narcotics Eviction Program was Morgenthau’s baby. “No other individual step we take addresses the drug-trafficking problem as effectively in a building where people live,” the D.A. said, announcing the Narcotics Eviction Program in 1987. “There’s nothing more important than recapturing housing stock so people can live safely in their homes.”

At the time, law enforcers faced a nagging problem. Even when dealers had gone through the lengthy process of getting busted and convicted and sent to prison, sales in apartments continued. Crack was becoming more popular on the street--an epidemic. Narcotic cops were raiding the same drug dens, over and over, in the same apartments.

To uproot the drug trade, the D.A.’s office resurrected certain provisions of the Real Property Act and Proceedings Laws, a dusty series of statutes known as “bawdy house laws.” Intended to banish prostitution and houses of ill repute, the laws call for eviction of the primary tenant, presumably the madam. Interpreting the statutes, Morgenthau and other legal enforcers around the country have argued successfully that the bawdy house laws could also be used to banish any illegal business. While NEP’s main target has been the drug trade, the D.A.’s office says it also goes after prostitution rings, black market guns and cigarettes, and the lucrative trade in counterfeit sports apparel.

Following Morgenthau’s swift success, the city’s other boroughs adopted the program as well. “It’s absolutely necessary,” says Oscar Ruiz, an assistant district attorney in Queens. “Sure, you always have one person who claims not to know anything--but what about the 900 other people in the neighborhood that get affected by that ignorance? They suffer the terror.”

The D.A.’s office doesn’t just put the squeeze on tenants; it holds landlords responsible, too, and relies on them to press cases in Housing Court. If they fail to bring eviction proceedings, owners can be forced to pay fines, be named in litigation or lose their buildings through forfeiture. After an arrest or search warrant is executed and evidence of a business is discovered, no matter how small the amount of drugs is, NEP coordinators and paralegals send a letter to the owner of the building requesting that the landlord execute eviction proceedings against the tenant immediately.

In turn, the D.A.’s office offers to piggyback the case in court for the landlord, arranging paperwork and preparing witnesses. They give away precious “red backs,” colored pieces of paper that accompany legal claims and ensure cases move speedily through the cluttered court system. And while the D.A. is not technically a party to the case, city paralegals also accompany attorneys for landlords into courtrooms, offer support, help negotiate settlements and make sure cases aren’t bungled. The D.A. even has a pre-prepared sheet of questions designated for landlords’ attorneys--just in case a lawyer forgets which questions to ask a tenant or detective on the stand.

Some landlords are happy to have help getting rid of their tenants, especially from regulated apartments that can fetch much higher rents once they’re vacant. Others balk at evicting longtime tenants who are harmless and at being forced to pay legal fees to evict tenants who send in rent on time. (Drug dealers have always been known for punctual payments.)

Gary Galperin, the assistant district attorney who’s been running NEP since its inception, says teaming up with landlords is the only way to ensure evictions are handled in a timely, efficient manner. “We recognize that this remedy can be a powerful tool used for wonderful things,” Galperin says. “We also recognize that as a powerful tool we must wield it fairly, justly and carefully.”

Some tenant lawyers question how justly that power is really applied. Craig Acorn, who’s defended more than a dozen NEP eviction cases in court as staff attorney for the mental health division of the Urban Justice Center, calls the alliance between D.A. and landlord an “unholy partnership,” one that puts innocent people onto the street and offers landlords plum opportunities to run tenants from rent-regulated apartments. “It’s a huge waste of time,” he says. “If taxpayers knew the D.A. was spending all this money to evict old grandmothers and put them into the street, they would be outraged.”

Acorn says he recently won a case in which two sisters living in a $650-a-month, one-bedroom apartment were facing eviction for three grams of marijuana and a half-gram of cocaine that were confiscated from the younger sister’s husband, a disabled war veteran, following an anonymous call to the cops. (The women are disabled, too: The sister who holds the lease has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and undergoes dialysis for renal failure, while the younger one is on oxygen for emphysema.) At trial, Acorn pointed out that the drugs were for private use and the husband was not charged with intent to sell. Still, the landlord wanted the sisters, who are not drug users, out.

“The people who often pay the heavy price of this program are people the general public is not concerned with,” Acorn says. “Even worse, if a person does have a drug problem, the last thing they need to rehabilitate themselves is to be tossed into the street. That’s self-destructing policy.”

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Lourdes Cirino, a heavyset woman with gray spider streaks running down her long black hair, doesn’t have a lawyer and doesn’t know where to find one. The trial to decide whether she will be able to stay in her apartment starts in about a month. In Housing Court on a recent morning, Cirino, clad in tank top and sneakers, was trying to fight a NEP eviction from the $137-a-month, publicly assisted East Harlem apartment where she was born 50 years ago. Cirino didn’t know about any drugs, she says. On weekends she works for a private bus operator that transports family members of state prisoners upstate, making sandwiches, keeping passengers company and cleaning the bus for $50 a trip. Because she’s not around on weekends, she let a friend use her apartment as a place to crash.

“We all need a roof over our heads,” she explained.

A few months ago, Cirino’s friend was busted and charged with dealing heroin and cocaine from Cirino’s apartment; he now faces a minimum of nine years in prison. “It’s unfair,” Cirino says. “Now my friend is in prison: he’s safe, he’s exercising, he’s working out. I’m running around with my head cut off.”

But lawyers for the New York City Housing Authority aren’t buying her story. “What [Cirino] didn’t say,” notes Lisa Hynes, NYCHA’s attorney in the case, “is that her ‘friend’ is a guy named Freddy, and that’s the same ‘Freddy’ tattooed onto her arm next to a big heart. Next time, she shouldn’t wear short sleeves in court.”

Of the 300 or so cases the D.A.’s office has handled this year, about half are in private housing, says Michelle Rosa, coordinator of NEP. She says scenarios like Peréz’s--elderly, often-out-of-touch women whose children or grandchildren peddle small quantities of drugs--are common, and pleading ignorance or claiming to have slept through the crime is rarely a successful defense. “You have to control the business in your own apartment,” Rosa says. “You’re putting your fellow tenants at risk.”

Most tenants NEP is evicting aren’t serious drug traffickers, staff in the D.A.’s office say. “It’s really the little guys,” says Diana McCovery, a paralegal who’s worked for NEP for the last five years. “The major players don’t even touch the drugs,” she says, “and once the kids get out of prison, they just go right back to packaging for quick money.… It’s a vicious cycle.”

Some tenants facing eviction from their apartments barely understand what’s going on. In Housing Court recently, Joanne Mercier, a 27-year-old mother of four from the Bronx, couldn’t figure out why she should be evicted from her $1,040 one-bedroom apartment. If her boyfriend was the one busted for an eighth or so of marijuana and a gram or so of cocaine, she wondered, why should she be responsible?

“It wasn’t me with drugs,” Mercier said, in a rage. “Now I am the victim!”

Luz Peréz also considers herself a victim. A few days before her court date, Máximo, now an inmate at Mohawk Correctional Facility, a medium security prison near Albany, wrote her and her lawyer, stating: “My case had nothing to do with my family, they were ignorant to my wrong doings.” He also claimed Manhattan detectives misled him about consequences for his mother, when asking permission to search his bedroom. “I [told the police,] ‘Please let my mother live in her apartment because I’ve already disrespected her and I know I must find another address when I come home because she’ll never forgive me.”

Luz Peréz says she wants to appeal Bedford’s decision. But she needs to find a new place to live first, and having her appeal sitting for months in a Housing Court bin won’t do anything to secure her a bed. Unlike her landlord, she doesn’t get the “red backs.” She tried to make a compromise with her landlord, ARNJ Realty, and her management agency, Brownstone Management--say, switching to a smaller apartment--but to no avail.

“It’s very easy to sit back and be sympathetic about the situation--but there comes a time when enough is enough,” says Chris Greene, of Brownstone Management, about Peréz’s case. “You have to be fair to the other tenants. Her kid was a problem. What would happen if an innocent person were killed by accident with his gun? Whose fault would that be? The bottom line is, the landlord and the building shouldn’t be held responsible for her poor judgment.”