AN UNDERCOVER NYPD OFFICER entered the spotless Super Laundromat & Dry Cleaners in Inwood, a largely Dominican neighborhood at the northernmost tip of Manhattan. He made his rounds through the store, hawking what he said were stolen gadgets — an iPhone, iPad Mini and iPad.
One man took the bait, agreeing to shell out $200 for all three. He was arrested during the May 2013 sting, and the trouble seemed to end there.
But seven months later — the week before Christmas — cops arrived at the laundromat again. This time, they slapped a neon sticker on the front door declaring in block letters: “RESTRAINING ORDER.”
They presented the store’s owner, Sung Cho, with a daunting slew of legal papers, threatening to shutter the laundromat for a year and auction off everything inside. Their justification, the cops said: The store was being “used to facilitate criminal possession of stolen property.”
Owners interviewed for this story, all first- and second-generation immigrants, say they felt entrapped and then strong-armed into signing settlements with steep fines and onerous conditions
Cho was shocked. The 54-year-old Korean immigrant said he had operated his shop for six years without a problem. He says he had even helped cops solve neighborhood crimes, giving them video footage of the sidewalk outside his store.
To build its case, the NYPD cited the May 2013 arrest, along with one other undercover sale of an iPad months earlier for $100 and tips that people inside the laundromat were buying stolen property. Cho said police never told him about the iPad sale or the tips.
“It cannot be denied that this subject premises is a serious public nuisance,” the NYPD wrote in boilerplate language. “As such it should not be allowed to remain open even one more day.”
Cho was facing a nuisance abatement action, civil lawsuits intended to uproot persistent illegal activities by targeting the locations they stem from. Nuisance abatement became city law in the 1970s as a tool to clean up the sex industry in Times Square.
But today it’s being used quite differently — often ensnaring legal mom-and-pop shops that are almost exclusively located in minority neighborhoods, a Daily News and ProPublica investigation found.
Owners interviewed for this story, all first- and second-generation immigrants, say they felt entrapped and then strong-armed into signing settlements with steep fines and onerous conditions. The stipulations often allow for sweeping surveillance, such as warrantless searches and unbridled police access to video cameras. They also permit the NYPD to automatically fine and padlock a store should another allegation arise — all without giving merchants the opportunity to defend themselves in court.