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In a test case involving a 20-year-old law that allows authorities to hold landlords accountable for illegal activity on their property, an upstate New York judge has allowed the State Attorney General to pursue a civil suit against a woman with a history of renting a house to reputed drug dealers. Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Ferradino of Saratoga County in People v. Landy, 747-00, essentially ordered an Albany landlord to become an ally of the police department — but not nearly as much of an ally as the Attorney General would have liked. Ferradino directed Deborah L. Landy to evict any tenant involved in illegal activities at the house she owns on Alexander Street in the city of Albany. However, the judge rejected as “patently unenforceable” and potentially unconstitutional Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s attempt to require Landy to report to Albany Police any knowledge or even suspicion of unlawful behavior afoot on her property. The statute at issue, Section 231 of the Real Property Law, has been on the books for two decades, but was rarely invoked in any consistent or aggressive fashion. With Ferradino’s decision, that will change, Spitzer said Wednesday. “This sets a precedent that validates our jurisdiction in this area and paves the way for us to use the same strategy across the state,” Spitzer said. “The statute has been there, but has not been used. By virtue of its languishing without developing any case law, … it was a bit unclear precisely what we could and couldn’t do. Now, armed with not only the statute but judicial interpretation of the statute, we feel empowered to use this strategy elsewhere.” The “strategy” evolved in the context of a suspected drug house at 64 Alexander Street in Albany. Over the past several years, more than a dozen raids at that location have resulted in scores of arrests and about 20 convictions. But after every series of arrests, authorities say, the house would promptly revert to a drug center. Spitzer is attempting to break that cycle by going after the landlord. This spring, Spitzer’s assistant, Matthew J. Barbaro of the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau, brought a motion for injunctive relief. In it, the Attorney General sued Landy and five tenants who were alleged to have repeatedly used the Alexander Street residence to run a marijuana-dealing enterprise. Ferradino found “sufficient evidence” that the Alexander Street property “has been used for illegal purposes,” and put the onus on the landlord to make sure that activity is curtailed. Under the order, Landy is required under threat of contempt to evict any tenant that she knows is involved in an illegal trade. She is also required to evict any tenant after receiving information from “any law enforcement agency” that the individual is using her premises for illegal activities. Landy does not, however, have to report her suspicions to the police, since such a requirement is not only unenforceable but “arguably violative of Landy’s free speech rights,” Ferradino held. Spitzer said the initiative, which his office calls “Clean Sweep,” is a complement to more traditional law enforcement vehicles, such as criminal prosecution. “We have all seen that that system is porous and does not allow you to target a building, a facility, that itself has become the locus of criminal conduct,” Spitzer said. “The individuals may come and go, but the building that has been utilized for drug dealing maintains its presence as the epicenter of illegal conduct.” By using Section 231, authorities can pursue the landlord, as it did here, to prohibit the property owner from leasing to people who use the property for illegal purposes. The aim is to target drug peddling both on an individual and geographical basis. Spitzer acknowledged that it is incumbent on his office to establish that a landlord had knowledge that illegal activity was under way on his or her property. In those cases where the landlord purposely maintains ignorance, Spitzer said the process would be slightly different. “We would have to notify the landlord and say, ‘Be aware. You are now on notice,’ and then would be able to pursue it,” Spitzer said. Landy was represented by Eugene Z. Grenz of Albany.

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