Court rejects Hempstead check-cashing law

Hempstead Town Hall Plaza is at 1 Washington

Hempstead Town Hall Plaza is at 1 Washington St. (Credit: J.C. Cherubini, 2011)

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New York's top court Thursday declared invalid a Hempstead zoning law intended to force 25 check-cashing outlets to either move to industrial areas from business districts or close.

Also Thursday, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a Long Island firefighter who had been denied pension benefits partly due to claims by his estranged wife.

The court, in a 5-0 decision, said Hempstead overstepped its authority when it tried to specifically target check-cashing establishments.

"We hold that a zoning measure that prohibits check cashing establishments in a town's business district is invalid, because it violates the principle that zoning is concerned with the use of land, not with the identity of the user," Judge Robert Smith wrote for the court.

Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray had supported the zoning, saying check-cashing firms were "by and large predatory" because of the fees they charge. Murray was not available to comment.

Smith, in his six-page decision, held that the town had not enacted the zoning law as a "public safety measure," though it claimed in its court filings that check-cashing companies were targets for robberies, kidnappings and murders.

Instead, Smith noted that Hempstead in 2005 had claimed the zoning law "represents sound public policy" because check-cashing companies can "exploit the poor and African Americans."

The town had likened check-cashing companies to strip clubs, the judge said.

More than a decade ago, New York's top court ruled that New York City could use its zoning law to protect children and churchgoers from being confronted with adult entertainment by restricting such establishments to manufacturing and commercial districts.

However, Smith cited legal precedents, saying: "Our cases make it clear that the zoning power is not a general police power, but a power to regulate land use."

Richard Blumberg, a partner with the Uniondale-based Forchelli law firm that represented the companies, said Hempstead had tried to make an "impermissible" distinction between his clients and a bank, for example.

"I think this ordinance was using zoning to enforce value judgments pertaining to the type of use of that particular property," he said.

In the other Long Island case, the top court ruled the City of Long Beach had failed to give firefighter Brian Ward a chance to respond to his estranged wife's claims that he had injured his knee at their child's soccer game instead of on duty at the firehouse in 2003.

The court noted the state had granted disability benefits based on "substantial contrary evidence, including medical findings."

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