By George Capsis
“I am going on trial tomorrow,” came the email from Attorney Arthur Schwartz, who had removed landlord surveillance cameras from the front of the apartment door
of 94-year-old Ruth Berk, who was enjoying a rent controlled 95 Christopher Street terrace apartment worth thousands more.
Ruth had been a singer at her husband’s West Village club—a favorite of local celebrities. She currently lives with her daughter, Jessica. They are both locked into a legal struggle with Ruth’s landlord who managed to have Ruth removed to an assisted living facility. Attorney Arthur Schwartz ultimately liberated Ruth and returned her to the West Village apartment.
After a day in Criminal Court, I emailed a few questions to Arthur who provided his responses, below.
1. Why did you remove the cameras? Because I viewed them as a form of harassment of Ruth Berk. The landlord was responsible for suggesting to a judge that she should be moved to a nursing home even though it wasn’t needed. They had left the apartment in terrible disrepair, and I viewed the cameras as one form of harassment. My reaction was instantaneous, visceral.
2. How long was it before you gave the cameras to the DA (if that is the office you gave them to)? The minute I took the cameras down, I called Marty Baranski, the Community Affairs Officer at the 6th Precinct. He called me back and said the building manager had complained and that they told her it was a civil matter. An hour later, the building’s lawyer wrote an email to Judge Tanya Kennedy, who was handling the attempted eviction of the Berks, and who had ordered a bunch of repairs. The judge declined to do anything unless the lawyer submitted a formal motion. So, I held the cameras, waiting for a motion. Nothing came before the July 4th weekend, and I took 6 days off. I came back on July 9th, and sent the cameras over to Attorney General Schneiderman, with a harassment complaint. Later in the day, the police called and said, “Turn yourself in, you are being charged with grand larceny. The cameras were worth $4000.”
3. How were you informed to surrender at the 6th precinct? After the detective called, I had Corey Johnson call the Commanding Officer. He and my lawyer arranged to have me surrender the following Tuesday, on July 14th.
4. Were you taken in cuffs to the Criminal Court building? Yes, they cuffed me in the precinct, behind my back, and then had me get in a squad car, cuffed, in a very cramped back seat. It was VERY uncomfortable. I couldn’t lean forward to take pressure off the cuffs, and they got very tight.
5. After Part B, which I guess just sets court dates and directs people to courtrooms, we went to a court with a male judge. Why? What happened in that courtroom? He must have been directing “traffic”. He assigned us to Judge Mennin.
6. Would you do it again if given the chance? I would gladly pay $720 again if it would allow me to abate the harassment of an elderly person by a landlord.
7. Will you have no criminal record? The charges were dismissed and the record sealed. There is no criminal record.
8. If you were not a lawyer, might you have had a more difficult time? I had a really difficult time. The only thing I avoided, largely thanks to Corey Johnson, was going to the Tombs to wait to be called for arraignment. They let me sit on a bench outside the courtroom, cuffed behind my back. Other than that, I didn’t get a break until Monday. I then learned that the Assistant DA caught hell for allowing a dismissal. It was reported on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Law Journal. The DA’s office called the Law Journal (and the New York Post) and said it was an error, and that I had accepted an ACD, which meant no dismissal for 6 months. They changed their online version of the story. Then I called the reporter, who heard the judge say “charges dismissed,” and he changed it back.