By Bill Parry
Santiago Bonilla, the owner of Love Bakery and Cafe, is fighting a $300 summons for an unclean sidewalk for garbage he couldn’t clean because it was lodged beneath an parked car. Two years ago, the owner of the deli next door was issued a summons for the same reason.
Last week their neighbor on Junction Boulevard, state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), unveiled a measure requiring city agencies to obtain photographic evidence when issuing summonses for certain civil violations that are reviewed by the city’s Office of Administrative Trails and Hearings.
“This legislation is about fairness, it is about transparency. This is another example of how government can catch up with technology,” Peralta said. “New Yorkers already document everyday life situations with their cell phones or other electronic devices. There is no reason that enforcement officers cannot have proof of a violation by snapping a quick photo with a cell phone or tablet.”
Peralta’s bill would mandate that city agencies develop a list of violations where photographs could serve as evidence of violations, such as the presence of vermin at eateries, or states of disrepair that violate the city’s Construction Code. The accumulation of garbage on sidewalks, for example, as well as vermin and disrepair, all lend themselves to proof through the use of photos by enforcement officials, he said. Once a city agency determines that a particular violation should appear on a list of those covered by the legislation, a photograph of the conditions underlying the violation must be obtained.
Using the website already maintained by OATH, respondents will then have the ability to easily view photographs collected by enforcement officials, should they wish to proceed with an appeal.
“While justice dictates that respondents should have the ability to ascertain the nature of the evidence against them, it is also important that the city is able to prove its case and uphold a summons when it has been properly issued,” Peralta said. “The use of photographic evidence will level the playing field and allow all parties to accurately address the substance of cases appearing before the OATH tribunals.”
In 2016, the Hearing Division of the Environmental Control Board of OATH reviewed more than 700,000 summonses of which nearly 60 percent were dismissed.
“My bill will focus on improving the quality of summonses issued,” Peralta said. “With the use of photographic evidence, summonses may be more difficult to challenge for respondents, but it is also my hope that the city will sharply reduce the number of summonses issued improperly. There is simply no reason for these matters to continue to be adjudicated by a legal standard of ‘he said, she said.’”
Assemblyman-elect Brian Barnwell (D-Woodside) joined Peralta and said he would carry the bill to the state Assembly when he is sworn in next month.
“This bill will promote transparency and justice,” Barnwell said. “The government can say this is what you violated and this is the evidence. The government can easily take a photo. That solves a lot of problems and that is why I signed on to this bill.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr