City targets Queens Plaza prostitution

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In a push to crack down on prostitution in Queens Plaza, lawyers for the city this week sought sweeping power to bar suspected criminals from public streets, a move experts say raises serious constitutional issues.

Attorneys representing the city of New York and the Police Department made their case at a hearing Tuesday in Queens Supreme Court in Jamaica. They sought an injunction prohibiting 21 suspected prostitutes and pimps from setting foot within a several-block area of Queens Plaza during late night hours, a tough new measure that could set a precedent for other parts of the city.

Only four of the defendants in the case had been served with papers, and only two appeared for the hearing. Neither had a lawyer present, but Judge Arthur Lonschein allowed the hearing to continue over the strenuous objections of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"This is possibly the most extraordinary proceeding I have ever seen," said Christopher Dunn, an attorney for the NYCLU who appeared at the hearing at the invitation of the judge. "I just think this is totally inappropriate."

At the end of the daylong hearing, Lonschein granted a temporary restraining order that barred most of the defendants from harassing people or obstructing traffic in the area, at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City. Lonschein said he would rule on the more sweeping injunction the city seeks after hearing arguments on its constitutionality over the next few weeks.

"I don't think you have to prove to an exact science that there is prostitution in the vicinity of Bridge Plaza," Lonschein said. "The real question is, what authority do I have to inhibit it? That's the question that you haven't convinced me of....The argument being that we live in a democracy, and this is not a dictatorship."

Dunn characterized the hearing as "grossly unfair" to the two defendants who appeared in court and to the others who had never been informed of the action against them.

One of the defendants, Martine Souverain of Brooklyn, said she wanted a lawyer present, but Lonschein told her "if you want a lawyer, this case may not be finished today."

The second defendant who was present, George Winn of Brooklyn, responded unintelligibly when Lonschein asked him whether he wanted a lawyer, and the judge told him to sit down. Lonschein later dismissed Winn's case altogether after a police lieutenant admitted during his testimony that he had never seen Winn in Queens Plaza.

Lawyers for the city presented police testimony, video surveillance and arrest reports documenting the "public nuisance" of prostitution, the subject of constant complaints by community groups in the area. Queens Plaza straddles the line dividing the 108th and 114th precincts, and the captains of the two precincts have been co-operating in efforts to rid the area of prostitutes, pimps and johns.

"To the Police Department it's a very, very frustrating matter," said George Grasso, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for legal matters. "The prostitutes just keep coming back."

Grasso and his co-counsels presented testimony from Capt. James O'Brien, commanding officer of the 114th Precinct and former commander of the 108th Precinct; Lieutenant Kevin York of the NYPD's anti-gang unit; and Sgt. David Porter of the 108th Precinct.

York and Porter testified that the 21 defendants were associated with various illegal activities in the Queens Plaza area and in East New York, but not all of them had been arrested or convicted of prostitution-related crimes.

They alleged that the prostitution in Queens Plaza was run by an organized crew of "Bloods" gang members who moved their operations into Queens Plaza after a series of gang-related shootings pushed them out of East New York. The officers said they suspected the Bloods in a shooting last weekend at the Twin Donuts shop in Queens Plaza, where pimps and prostitutes are said to congregate.

Dunn said similar anti-gang measures have been used in California and Illinois and have also met constitutional challenges. The New York City proposal is unusual because it tries to protect a neighborhood using the legal argument of an order of protection.

"This would be a matter of some precedent," Grasso said.

If the measure succeeds only in moving prostitution to other neighborhoods, Grasso said the Police Department would seek more injunctions.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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