A Brooklyn landlord who served 20 days in jail after pleading guilty to mortgage fraud has successfully had his conviction overturned.
Daniel Melamed won his case by convincing a panel of New York state appellate judges that the warrant the state’s attorney general used to search Melamed’s office in 2015 was so broad that it violated the United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure.
“Most notably, other than a date restriction covering a period of approximately five years, the warrant permitted the [Attorney General’s office] to search and seize all computers, hard drives and computer files stored on other devices without any guidelines, parameters, or constraints on the type of items to be viewed and seized,” read the majority opinion of the appellate court, which was rendered with the order to overturn Melamed’s conviction in late December.
Melamed first came under the scrutiny of authorities due to accusations that he was harassing tenants in order to drive them out of rent-regulated apartments.
Investigators with a task force created by then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015 to investigate an increasing number of tenant-harassment complaints claimed that Melamed illegally shut the heat off for rent-regulated tenants at a 14-unit building he owned in Crown Heights during the winter time when outdoor temperatures dropped below freezing.
They also alleged he performed illegal construction and demolition work that exposed tenants to dangerous levels of lead dust.
Melamed was acquitted on the top felony charge – filing false paperwork with the DOB – and on a misdemeanor of endangering a child. He was convicted on three counts of illegally evicting rent-stabilized tenants.
But as is often true in tenant harassment cases, Melamed was charged with financial crimes related to his real estate investments.
Schneiderman’s office charged him with 13 counts including residential mortgage fraud and grand larceny for allegedly creating false documents to help a co-conspirator get a loan from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Melamed pleaded guilty in 2017 to mortgage fraud and grand larceny. He served 20 days in jail, was ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and sentenced to five years’ probation.
But the landlord appealed his case in April of last year, and in a 3-1 decision the appellate panel found that the warrant was so broad that it allowed the AG’s office to “search and seize virtually all conceivable documents that would be created in the course of operating a business.”
Judge Ruth Balkin, writing for the majority, cited previous arguments that the “potential for privacy violations occasioned by an unbridled exploratory search” of those files is “enormous.”
The dissenting judge, however, argued that given the complex nature of the claims being investigated, the scope of the warrant was justified and wrote that the decision could set a dangerous precedent.
“The majority’s determination that the search warrant was not sufficiently particular will result in new standards for the way that search warrants are prepared and executed in New York,” Judge Joseph Maltese wrote. “Making such a substantial change in legal policy is the province of the legislature of this state or the New York Court of Appeals.”
A spokesperson for the current attorney general, Letitia James, said the office is currently reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.
Melamed could not be reached for comment.