The famed South Bronx strip club, Sin City, was maligned by many in its own community over the years for its problems with drug dealing, gang fights, gun crime, and wild parties sparkling with celebrities—from 50 Cent to Odell Beckham Jr. to Drake.
Once, the local community board in Mott Haven, where the club spread across an industrial area, cited 61 reports of “dangerous activity” tied to the club and called it a “terror zone” in a letter sent to the state Liquor Authority.
But Sin City, at its peak, also hauled in nearly $12 million a year, according to its lawyer. And it was considered both a rare bright spot in a long-depleted economy and one of the community’s largest employers of black and Hispanic residents.
Now, the club, forced to shut down in 2017 after having its liquor license taken away, is alive and fighting once more—this time in court.
In a federal lawsuit filed in September via civi-rights attorney and retired police officer Eric Sanders, Sin City is claiming that it was the victim of a New York Police Department-driven “campaign of selective enforcement” that pushed it out of business and “enabl[ed] politically connected parties to purchase its devalued property for a lucrative development.”
At the heart of Sin City’s lawsuit are claims that the NYPD targeted the club because of the race or national origin of its customers, stakeholders and on-premise alcohol license-holder. The complaint, lodged in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, further contends that 40th Precinct police officers working in Mott Haven used tactics such as making false arrests, issuing false business violations and abusing the city’s controversial nuisance-abatement law to harass and corner the business, ultimately causing it to forfeit its liquor license.
At the time nuisance abatement was used against Sin City, it had allowed lawyers for the police to file a civil action claiming illegal activity and then privately ask a judge to temporarily order occupants out of a business or home. No occupant would respond to or even know about the request. While the action against Sin City never closed it down, the club was forced to pay a six-figure penalty and, in Sanders’ view, the action helped convince the Liquor Authority that the nightspot was a police “focal point” that needed its license revoked. In 2017, the City Council passed a Nuisance Abatement Fairness Act that nearly eliminated the city’s ability to shutter locations without warning and forbade the permanent eviction of any occupant.
Responding to the Law Journal’s questions about Sin City’s lawsuit, the NYPD indicated that it will fight a case that it views as baseless. It’s unclear, for now, whether the city’s Law Department, which will represent New York City, will also defend seven 40th Precinct police officers named in the legal action, but in most similar instances it does.
“These claims are without merit,” NYPD spokesman Phillip Walzak said in an email that addressed the Sin City action and other allegations made by Sanders.
Walzak also called the nuisance-abatement law “a critical law enforcement tool,” and said “the NYPD will continue to use it fairly and appropriately to keep neighborhoods safe.”
“Business owners who are following the law have nothing to worry about,” he said.
But, for Sanders, whether nuisance abatement is a critical tool for the police is beside the point. He maintains that there is nothing fair and appropriate about how it was used against Sin City or how it’s been employed against other minority-run and -frequented businesses in the five boroughs.
“It really boils down to the old philosophy of government power and how it is used, and that gets back to the fact that Sin City is no more of a problem than any other on-premise alcohol license-holder,” Sanders said in an interview this week.
Growing more animated, he added, “If you look at the police documents, the overwhelming majority of times the police were inside that [club], they were unable to make drug buys.
“But what they would do was cute,” he said, citing interviews with club staff and certain police records, “because the undercover cops looking to buy drugs would meet someone on the street or somewhere else and tell them, ‘Why don’t we meet at Sin City at 8 p.m.?’ or some other time, and try to engage them in a drug sale inside the club.”
Moreover, he argued, “As long as you sell alcohol, you’ll have problems, whether it’s Yankee Stadium or Sin City.”
“They serve two different audiences,” he said, “but they have the same common problem with activity at their premises. … And so when you decide that you’re going to enforce the alcohol-beverage laws or other laws against on-premise license-holder Sin City, versus Yankee Stadium, then the question is why.”
The suit itself levies an equal protection-based charge of selective enforcement as well as claims directed at the NYPD for its alleged failures as an organization, including “failure to train,” “failure to supervise” and “failure to discipline” officers. The “failure” claims imply that the seven officers may be the victims of the NYPD’s shortcomings.
“Plaintiff alleges that the situation presents the employee with a difficult choice of the sort either that training will make less difficult or that there is a history of employees mishandling the situation,” the complaint says, for instance.
The suit also brings a so-called Monell claim, charging a further violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. §1983. In that claim, Sanders argues that New York City has implemented “official and un-official’ policies … based on the race and/or national origin of [Sin City's] target market.”
Adds the complaint in another section, “[The NYPD and its officers] continue the unlawful selective enforcement activities citywide.”
It’s that sweeping allegation—going beyond Sin City—that makes Sanders the most animated of all when speaking about the issue. His voice spikes and words rush out, as he outlines what he says is a long “pattern” of the NYPD going after black- and minority-owned and -frequented businesses by using trumped-up, setup or outright false charges, or nuisance abatement.
To back up his claim, he rifles through a list of the other black- and minority-owned businesses he has represented or is representing. For each business—six in all—he has already filed, or promises to file soon, civil rights-based actions similar to Sin City’s.
Most notably, he is currently representing—and said he will file a federal complaint on behalf of—the defunct Lust Club in Brooklyn. Opened in 2014 and found near the Barclays Center, the bikini-clad-dancer club was growing in profit and fame until its own liquor license was pulled by the Liquor Authority last June.
50 Cent went there often, and even posted a video backing it after it closed. Cardi B., the singer, reportedly worked there as a dancer for a time and also has publicly complained about the city’s treatment of the club, which was better known by the name “Love & Lust.” Sanders notes that it had operated in a predominantly white Brooklyn enclave.
Moreover, in the days before the nightspot’s liquor license was revoked, Sanders and his client, Love & Lust owner Imran Jairam, had filed a $125 million notice of claim with the city alleging that the NYPD had been constantly harassing him with inspections since the club opened. The harassment, Jairam has claimed, happened because he refused to hand over gifts to a local precinct commander who had allegedly been demanding the presents in a “shakedown.”
Sanders has also lodged selective-enforcement legal actions similar to Sin City’s and Love & Lust’s on behalf of a former NYPD officer, Sonya Glover, who lost her small Queens lounge bar; three separate karaoke bars in the 109th Precinct in Flushing, Queens; and a pleasure-cruise yacht catering to people from Yemen that lost its docking rights after launching regularly from Brooklyn’s shore into the Hudson River.
Glover’s suit has been partially dismissed.
Still, when it comes to Sin City, at least, many of those who remember it—and especially those who lived nearby—are glad that its doors are shut. According to police statistics provided by the Law Department, in its time, the club was the scene of at least 11 undercover drug buys on nine occasions, and seven shootings between 2006 and 2014. There were also at least 85 unsealed arrests from 2008 onward, according to the statistics. And in the nuisance-abatement action, Sin City agreed to pay a $100,000 penalty and consented to a permanent injunction against any violation of NYS Penal Law 220, the statistics show.
Now, with its alcohol license revoked, Sin City’s brazen gold lions, perched on either side of its garage-door entrance, still present themselves as one walks up. But the lions look out of place, and graffiti mars the metal door—on which a posted sign, yelling “PLEASE STAY IN TOUCH,” seems almost lonely.
Sanders, though, remains adamant—both about the alleged wrongful closing of Sin City and the larger alleged issue of police targeting minority-run businesses.
“Sin City is not alone,” he said. “There’s business owners complaining about this all over the city. The issue is whether they can find an attorney, and whether they have the resources to challenge the city practices in court.”