On May 17, a DSS emergency shelter caseworker (CW) made a routine visit to the Wading River Motel, where several homeless families from Riverhead had been placed.
During the CW’s visit, a Riverhead Town Police car pulled around behind one of the buildings. The CW approached the officer to ask if there was a problem. The officer stated he had not received a call, but was conducting patrols. The officer then stated that “they” were not happy about a homeless motel being placed in Wading River. The CW asked who “they” were, and the officer clarified that he was referring to the police department and the community.
He went on to say that they were going to shut the motel down and that it wouldn’t be there “much longer.” He reminded her, “A lot of police live around here, and they don’t want this.”
This incident faded into a bad memory — until “they” tried to make good on their threat last Friday night. That evening, a convoy of vans (probably intended to be used as paddy wagons), as well as marked and unmarked cars containing about 15 police, code enforcement, fire marshal and town attorney staff arrived unannounced at the motel, sending fearful residents heading to their rooms.
The police and their civilian-suited counterparts showed a town judge’s warrant to the motel operator before going from room to room, taking pictures of the ID of each homeless resident and checking for outstanding warrants, and searching through rooms and closets, obviously seeking any contraband they could find. All in the name of building code violations.
Interestingly, they had obtained their warrant the previous day, and waited until that night to carry it out. After a tense and, for the residents, traumatic couple of hours, the scowling crew left. They exited with no contraband, one Vehicle and Traffic Law arrest for unauthorized use (the individual was later released), and their empty vans, with no code violation summons served on anyone.
Riverhead Town Code 86-12 sets forth the requirements and process for the issuance of a search warrant in order to conduct an inspection of any premises in Riverhead. The legal test in 86-12 requires there be reasonable cause to believe a violation has occurred, as well as an owner’s refusal or failure to allow an inspection of their rental premises. In the case of the Wading River Motel, although there may be a question about the rental permit, we know that the motel operator had been working with these same town code enforcement staff for months, and consented to every inspection they requested.
Furthermore, he had underwriters’ certificates for every repair he made. One code inspector, who had been very familiar with the previous motel owner, said the place “never looked so good.” The operator also cooperated with Health Department inspections prescribed by the state, which he passed. Thus the warrant, fueled by the reprehensibly unprincipled behavior of town officials, proves to be illegal.
What really counts is what happened between the unwarranted patrol on May 17 and the raid last Friday. DSS placed families in this man’s motel because all 52 family shelters operated by the county are full and the department knew him to be a reputable operator. Motels are a last resort, as they slow down the process of getting homeless families back on their feet (though DSS still moves 30 to 40 families per month out of homelessness). Almost all the residents at the motel are single mothers with children. None are registered sex offenders. Many are from Riverhead, as we try to place homeless families in their school district or town of origin. We monitor the police blotters and keep in touch with the police and the town attorney, just as the operator has. They never once hinted of their terrible plan, and the place has been free of criminal activity. So why the raid?
The checks and balances system of the judicial branch of government fell flat on its face with this warrant, which authorized searches without identifying anyone who should be searched. Even one of the senior police at the scene remarked he never saw such a vague, sweeping warrant in all his years. Town Justice Court served, or disserved, these disenfranchised people already suffering from the trauma of homelessness. The judge acted not as a safeguard, but as an enabler.
To quote the great Edmund Burke, “The best way for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” We cannot and must not accept this shocking turn of events.
Mr. Blass is the commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. He lives in Jamesport.