The NYPD's Civil Forfeiture System Has Taken Millions From Low-Income New Yorkers

On the afternoon of May 16 in the South Bronx, NYPD officers stormed into an apartment filled with young men, looking for a parolee. They quickly found their guy and placed him under arrest. Then they began going through the rest of the apartment. Nate Ortiz, 27, who had lived there with his mother and two sisters for his entire life, began to protest. If the parolee, a friend of his, didn’t live in the apartment, why were they searching it? He began to ask if the police had a warrant, and under what justification they were going through the rooms. The police just laughed at him at first, but when Ortiz persisted in asking about the legality of the search, they arrested him and everyone else in the apartment.

“It was ransacked,” Anna Ortiz, his mother, told the Village Voice, describing her return that night to the rent-stabilized apartment she had been renting for more than 25 years. "They destroyed that apartment.”

Even worse than the destruction, the $2,651 in cash that Ms. Ortiz had left in the apartment, which was going toward that month’s rent (as well as some back rent they owed), was missing. No one else could have taken it, except the New York City Police Department. Her son’s arrest was now just the beginning of their problems. The Ortiz family (whose names have been altered due to ongoing legal proceedings) would now have to navigate the NYPD’s hellish and unjustifiably punitive civil forfeiture system, under which low-income New Yorkers have lost millions of dollars because of nothing less than daylight robberies committed by the very police meant to protect them. Even though Nate was only charged with a disorderly conduct violation, the NYPD still has the family's desperately needed money. Last week, the Ortizes were in housing court to try to stave off eviction, with Anna, who works at a hospital, unable to make up the shortfall with her salary.

“You try to be such a hardworking person, and then something like this happens, and it’s such an embarrassment,” said Ms. Ortiz. “The problem is that it’s just so common.”

Just how common, and exactly how much money the NYPD is currently taking from low-income New Yorkers, is the basis of a lawsuit filed last week against the NYPD by the Bronx Defenders, alleging effective denial of the public defender’s FOIL requests on how much money the NYPD is seizing from New Yorkers and under what specific justification it's doing so. After years of stonewalling by the NYPD, it finally released to the Bronx Defenders just a single year’s worth of property clerk’s data, revealing that it had more than $68 million in seized cash on hand, only $6.5 million of which had been legally forfeited that year. The department still gave no specific accounting of where the money came from or through which process it was taken.

Since 2014, there have been multiple efforts made to try to rein in the NYPD’s cash grabs — a bill introduced last year by Bronx councilman Ritchie Torres would mandate that the NYPD provide a full accounting of the items it seizes from those it arrests, how much money it takes in from them, and where, exactly, that money goes. That legislation is scheduled to come to a vote this fall, but considering the de Blasio administration’s hesitance to legislate any police reform whatsoever, it might never see the light of day. A separate lawsuit by the Bronx Defenders did find some success, however. A federal case against the Bronx district attorney is now on hold after the D.A. agreed to streamline its property release process, just one of a series of hurdles that people have to go through to retrieve their money or possessions.

Breaking the story in 2014, I wrote about how, for decades, the NYPD has been taking the money and possessions of anyone it arrests, or even stops on the street, under the legal pretense of civil forfeiture. The idea of seizing money or goods during an arrest originally became popular in the 1970s to take money and yachts out of the hands of drug dealers, even if they ended up beating the case anyway. Law enforcement was able to make a case against the money — possible criminals would have to prove exactly how they came to possess such amounts. Now, however, the NYPD uses the practice primarily to take money and property from the pockets of those who can least afford to get it back. Almost all of the time, the NYPD and the district attorney decline to actually pursue any type of forfeiture after they’ve seized it during an arrest. Typically, the NYPD never had a reason to take the money in the first place, and certainly not a good enough reason to hold up in court. But the process of getting your money back from the NYPD’s convoluted and arcane bureaucracy, even if you were never charged with a crime, can be so labor-intensive and maddening that many people give up.

“Because you’re not provided with a lawyer for this type of case, almost everyone tries to navigate it pro se,” said Adam Shoop, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders, stressing that those who can afford lawyers are the most likely to be able to retrieve their cash.

The Ortiz family was finally able to get a release from the district attorney's office, which has to sign off on the return of any seized goods. But the release doesn't legally compel the NYPD to turn the money over. After weeks of efforts by the family's legal advocate from the Bronx Defenders, the NYPD still hasn’t loosened its grip on the cash. It told the family and their representation that their demand was “improper.” They’ve filed another demand. As of publication, they’re still waiting on a reply from the NYPD regarding their cash, even as they fight in housing court to keep their home.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if we have to leave,” Ms. Ortiz told us. “I’m disgusted by the situation and the position that the NYPD has put us in.”

Their next court date is in early September. Hopefully by then, almost four months after their rent money was taken from them for no discernible reason, they’ll have it back. And maybe sometime in the near future, the true extent of the NYPD’s plunder will come to light.

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