The New York Police Department (NYPD) has released about 160,000 documents which detail the property and money seized from citizens, primarily during arrests, between 2017 and 2017. This is the result of a two-year lawsuit which alleged officials were withholding records documenting tens of millions of dollars in seized property.
In July 2014, the Bronx Defenders, a public defender office based in the South Bronx, filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for these documents to be released. They argued that the NYPD was holding onto citizens’ property even after their cases were completed.
In a statement, the attorney group said, “The NYPD has never provided a meaningful accounting for the millions of dollars in cash, cars, and phones it seizes, and how much of it is kept as revenue.”
According to New York State law, 60 percent of the proceeds of property seized using civil asset forfeiture goes to law enforcement. This leads to accusations of “policing for profit.” Civil asset forfeiture is the legal procedure where property may be taken from an individual even when that individual is not charged with a crime.
In New York City, 85 percent of cases where an individual has property taken, that individual is never charged with a crime. Even though they may be innocent of any wrongdoing, many of these individuals never see their property again.
New York attorney David Smith explained: “It’s very difficult for the victims of civil forfeiture—most of whom are from a lower socio-economic class—to do anything in the court system, much less win a civil forfeiture case.”
The Bronx Defenders claimed the NYPD held a balance of over $68 million in seized money in 2013. In the same year, the department made more than $6 million in revenue from seized property being sold at auction. The majority of property taken was forfeited to the city by default when deadlines for the owners’ retrieval process passed.
When the NYPD didn’t release the documents as requested, the Bronx Defenders took them to court. During the proceedings, law enforcement claimed they had not retained location data related to the seizures. They further claimed that the Property and Evidence Tracking System was not capable of handling the number of database searches the FOIL request would need.
While testifying, Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner explained: “Attempts to perform the types of searches envisioned in the bill will lead to system crashes. … The only way the department could possibly comply with the bill would be a manual count of over half a million invoices each year.”
When asked by the judge whether they had a backup of the data which could be used, New York City attorney Neil Giovanatti said there was no backup.
Despite these obstacles, the NYPD released the documents last Monday. In a statement, a Law Department spokesman wrote, “There has been no allegation that any of the assets were mishandled. In an effort to be more transparent, the NYPD was able to provide information to satisfy the Bronx Defender’s FOIL request and end the litigation while at the same time protecting the personal information in the database.”
As part of the agreement, the documents cannot be distributed outside the Bronx Defenders’ offices unless it contains no personal information. The Bronx Defenders hope that the release of these documents will increase the transparency of civil asset forfeiture procedures in New York City. They intend to release a report based on the information they find in the documents.
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.
Image by William Hoiles.