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Councilwoman Chin Makes Another Push to Target Knock-Off Bag Customers

LOWER MANHATTAN — Nearly two years after City Councilwoman Margaret Chin proposed making it illegal to buy designer knock-offs, the legislation has stalled.

Chin introduced a bill in April 2011 that for the first time would have punished the buyers — not just the sellers — of counterfeit handbags and other goods with fake labels.

But since then, without the support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn or Councilman Peter Vallone, the chairman of the Council's Public Safety Committee, the controversial bill has floundered.

To move the bill, which has attracted six co-sponsors, forward, Vallone's Public Safety Committee would have to hold a hearing on it, but that has not happened.

"I'm not taking a position on the bill because, as a former prosecutor, I see problems with the proof needed for the crime," Vallone said. "But, to the extent that the bill will bring attention to the out-of-control problem with counterfeits, I'm seriously considering a hearing."

However, Vallone added that he has no timetable for scheduling a hearing, because the next few months are already packed with budget hearings, and other councilmembers are scrambling to get their own legislation through as well. 

For Chin, though, the timing of the bill's hearing is crucial. If she does not get a hearing before January, the bill will be dead — she would have to reintroduce it in the next legislative session, which begins in 2014.

“Residents want this — the First Precinct supports this,” Chin said in an interview. “We’re going to keep pushing. We think it’s an important way to cut down on [a] major problem — our neighborhood is inundated with illegal vendors.”

To rebuild momentum for the proposal, Chin recently launched an online petition to push for a hearing, which she plans to send to Quinn and other local representatives once it has 100 signatures. As of this week, it had 74 signatures. 

A spokeswoman for Quinn said the legislation was "under review."

Under the bill, customers who knowingly bought a fake Louis Vuitton purse or Rolex watch would face up to a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Chin said just the threat of punishing the buyers of counterfeit goods could be an effective deterrent, even before the law was enforced.

Critics of the bill have argued that targeting the buyers is not the easiest means of curbing the counterfeit problem or the best use of police resources.

But Chin believes it's essential to target cheap counterfeit goods, because their sale is far from a victimless crime.

Fake designer items are connected to organized crime, hurt legitimate retailers in the community and create a quality-of-life nightmare for Downtown residents, she said. The trade also costs the city about $1 billion in lost taxes each year, she added.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.