Shortly after unveiling reforms to civil forfeiture procedures in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the county. The lawsuit argues that the county has been inappropriately disposing of vehicles seized using civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture is the legal process where law enforcement may take possession of an individual’s property if that property is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, neither a criminal conviction nor even criminal charges are required in order for property to be seized. In New York, 60 percent of the proceeds from civil asset forfeitures go to law enforcement. There is little oversight on how this money is spent. This has led to criticisms from across the political spectrum that law enforcement has an incentive to seize property.
At the start of September, Suffolk County lawmakers passed a bill giving them oversight on purchases using civil asset forfeiture funds when they exceed $20,000. The bill also stops law enforcement from using these funds to give their employees bonuses.
The bill was passed 15-0, with three abstaining. “This gives us a level of oversight about how asset forfeiture funds are spent before they out the door,” said Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) who sponsored the bill.
Between 2012 and 2017, more than $3.25 million in civil asset forfeiture funds was used to give bonuses to attorneys. Money has also been used to buy a watch for a secretary’s retirement and to pinstripe cars.
An earlier version of the bill would have set the spending limit at $3,500, but law enforcement felt this would have been difficult to enact. According to District Attorney Timothy Sini, the bill “is a really good model of how the legislature can pass effective legislation and receive support of law enforcement.”
Three weeks after these reforms were passed, James Campanelli filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of his client, Andrea Maddox of Westhampton Beach, whose BMW had been seized by law enforcement. The suit alleges that the county has illegally disposed of the vehicles of up to 400 people who had their cars seized during drunk-driving arrests.
The suit maintains that vehicles were turned over to financial institutions without letting owners know what was happening nor giving them a chance to get their property back. “The law is crystal clear,” said Campanelli. “They cannot give a car away to a third party without giving notice and procedure through which to challenge the unauthorized release.”
Campanelli argues that this practice was thrown out 20 years ago by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The court said that there must be an appeals process which allows owners to get their property back.
Suffolk County also imposes storage fees in the range of $4,000 to $6,000 on the financial institutions. By comparison, in neighboring Nassau County, these fees are $400. Banks are allowed to recover these fees as well as any money left unpaid on an auto loan. They may also report this as a payment default to the credit agencies. As a result, Andrea had to pay the remaining $39,748 she owed on her car in addition to the $6,000 storage fee.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.