Jury Faults Law, Not Renter

‘Weak’ rental registry code fails its first trial
A jury found James Henry, a tenant in Northwest Woods, not guilty of violating East Hampton Town’s rental registry law. After the verdict was announced, he posed with his girlfriend and housemate, Katlyn Albrecht, and his attorney, Lawrence Kelly. T.E. McMorrow

A jury found a Northwest Woods man charged with violating East Hampton Town’s rental registry law in 2016 not guilty after a trial at East Hampton Town Justice Court last week. 

The town had accused James Henry, who rents year round on Settlers Landing Lane, of living in the house despite knowing that its owner, Dolores Karl, a Manhattan resident, had not obtained a rental registry number, as of the date the charge was brought, July 29, 2016.

Under the law, which engendered much controversy before being passed by a unanimous vote by the East Hampton Town Board in December of 2015, the owner and the tenants are equally liable in cases where a rental house has not been registered.

Michael Sendlenski, the town’s lead attorney, handled the prosecution, while Lawrence Kelly, who had taken out a full-page advertisement in The East Hampton Star’s March 22 issue decrying the town’s approach to ordinance enforcement, represented Mr. Henry. The trial began on March 20 and concluded on March 21.

Violation of the law is considered a misdemeanor. If Mr. Henry had been convicted, he would have been left with a criminal record. The law also allowed a fine of up to $3,000 and up to six months in jail.

There was little dispute over the basic facts. Mr. Henry told the court that he had been renting the house for several years from Ms. Karl, who was elderly and had died after the charge was brought, and that he paid $3,000 a month. Ms. Karl was an absentee landlord, and it was established that Mr. Henry frequently rented out one or two rooms in the house. 

From the beginning, Mr. Kelly tried to make the trial about the law itself, which he called “slimy” during his opening statement. This brought an objection from Mr. Sendlenski, followed by a conference between the lawyers and the judge out of earshot of the jury. When they returned, Justice Tekulsky struck the sentence from the record and told the jury to disregard it.

Mr. Sendlenski called three witnesses on March 20, including Kelly Kampf, an ordinance enforcement officer in 2016 who is now East Hampton Town’s assistant director of public safety. 

Ms. Kampf told the jury that, as the town began enforcing the new law in the late spring of 2016, her department received a number of online complaints about the property in question from a neighbor who lived several houses down. These complaints included reports of debris in the yard, and allegations that the house was not registered as a rental.

Ms. Kampf visited the house in June 2016 and spoke with Mr. Henry, who allowed her to enter and inspect the property. Ms. Kampf described Mr. Henry as “cooperative.” She said she found several violations beyond the lack of a rental registry number, including the absence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and an illegal addition to a deck. 

A warning was issued, Ms. Kampf said, and the violations were eventually cleared. Still, there was no rental registry number.

During cross-examination, Mr. Kelly asked if Ms. Kampf had ever gone to the owner’s Manhattan address. She responded that she had not, explaining that she had no jurisdiction in Manhattan. With the town unable to reach or serve the owner, the tenant was the sole person charged.

Including the time they spent listening to Justice Tekulsky’s re-reading of the law and the charge, the jurors spent less than half an hour coming to their not-guilty verdict.

In the hallway after the trial, none of the jurors wanted to give his or her name, yet most were eager to talk. “The burden was left on him. It is a weak law. The law needs help. It is unfair. It needs to be revamped,” said the foreman.

“He thought it was registered at the time,” one of the two female jurors said. “Under oath, he said he thought it was registered.” 

“He said that he talked to [Ms. Karl] and that she said she was going to register,” a male juror added. “It is not his fault.”

Other jurors agreed that this assertion cast doubt on Mr. Henry’s guilt. 

Court observers believe that this is the first jury trial on a rental registry violation in East Hampton.