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Proposed law would give police new tool to deal with 'disorderly houses'

Ellen Abbott/WRVO
The proposal is discussed at a Syracuse Common Council meeting.

Syracuse lawmakers are trying to work out concerns over a proposed law that would allow police to crack down on problem houses in city neighborhoods.

It's a case where constitutional rights collide with neighborhood concerns. Councilor Khalid Bey wants to use a 100-year-old law, which was once used to crack down on brothels, as a way to rid neighborhoods of houses that have become hangouts for drug dealers and other criminals.

"You can be in a four block radius and there might be one house there, that whether it's high traffic, violence, crime, too many long parties, whether they're owner-occ[upied] or rented, these things take place, and they take place without impunity," Bey said.

Bey also said authorities usually can't use the current nuisance abatement law, because it requires three arrests at a property before police can take action.  

The disorderly houses law only requires three complaints, making it easier for police to move in.  And that's where there may be constitutional trouble, according to Sam Young, director of Advocacy Legal Services of central New York, who said it could interfere with due process.
"The law as it's currently proposed, contains no process by which the property owners or landlords or tenants can challenge complaints, which may be made anonymously," Young said.

He also says similar laws in other communities have run into legal challenges. Lawmakers will look for ways to incorporate those concerns in the legislation. Bey said the plan is to make it similar to the existing law.
"This is literally a smaller version of it," Bey said. "The civil penalties are much smaller. The requirements for arrest are obviously less. And there's no boarding of your house or shutting you down with this disorderly house."

Neighborhood groups support the legislation on the basis that police don't have the authority in many cases to deal with troublesome properties.