The NYPD was finally forced to shed some light on its use of civil forfeiture Thursday morning at a City Council hearing. But instead of coming clean, they blamed their lack of transparency on antiquated technology.
A proposed bill would require the department to release annual reports of just how much money it takes from the pockets of low-income New Yorkers, and the NYPD claimed that following the law would be near impossible.
“Attempts to perform the types of searches envisioned in the bill will lead to system crashes and significant delays during the intake and release process,” said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner, while testifying in front of the council’s Public Safety Committee. “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 councilmember Dan Garodnick whether the NYPD had come to the hearing with any sort of accounting for how much money it has seized from New Yorkers this past year, the NYPD higher-ups testifying simply answered “no.”
The admission by the NYPD that it has no idea how much money it has taken from New Yorkers shows just how badly transparency is needed in its use civil forfeiture, which the NYPD testified is an important tool to “remove both the incentive and the means of committing crime.”
The NYPD’s testimony was also disingenuous: As part of a FOIL request filed by the Bronx Defenders, the NYPD had already compiled and released figures that show the staggering amounts that it has seized.
As the Voice reported earlier this year, the NYPD has been taking millions of dollars out of the pockets of low-income New Yorkers under the guise of civil forfeiture proceedings. During either an arrest or stop, the NYPD seizes money and possessions from New Yorkers, often the ones least capable of getting their money back, many of whom are then never even charged with a crime.
At the hearing, the NYPD claimed that it only legally forfeited $11,653 in currency last year — that is, gone to court and actually made a case as to why the NYPD should be taking this money. The NYPD then went on to explain that an annual accounting of the full amount of money the department had seized, but not pursued civil forfeiture, would be technologically impossible. NYPD officials referred to the Property and Evidence Tracking System (PETS) as antiquated, even though it was only put in place in 2012. At the time, the NYPD was proud enough of the new tracking system that it entered it in technology competitions and claimed that it provided “the cradle-to-grave life cycle of property and evidence… visible upon demand.”
In the accounting summaries which the Bronx Defenders submitted as part of its testimony, the NYPD reports that as of December 2013, its property clerk had almost $69 million in seized cash on hand. This amount had been carried over from previous years, showing an annual accumulation of seized cash that has reached an enormous amount. The documents also show that each month, the five property clerk’s offices across the city took in tens of thousands of dollars in cash, ultimately generating over $6 million in revenue for the department. The report that the NYPD released appears to have been generated through the same use of their database that the department now claims is technologically impossible.
Without further explanation by the NYPD, the type of which committee members hoped to be getting at the hearing on Thursday, there’s no way to truly know the full extent of these cash and property seizures and how the numbers break down exactly.
“I find it strange that the most technologically sophisticated police force in the world cannot track its own property seizures. I just have trouble imagining that that’s the case,” said councilmember Ritchie Torres during the hearing. “I’m skeptical about the NYPD’s testimony.”
Testifying in front of committee members, lawyers and advocates from the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, and Legal Aid Society relayed a litany of horrors experienced by clients who had become trapped by the NYPD’s unjust civil forfeiture process. Anca Grigore, a staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, told the story of one client who was arrested while a passenger in another person’s car. The NYPD then went to the BDS client’s home, told their brother that they needed to move the client’s own car because it was blocking a driveway, and then seized the car. The BDS client eventually paid $500 to get the car back from the NYPD six months later. In another case, a BDS client had hundreds of dollars vouchered under the name of a co-defendant, whose criminal case was ongoing — the process took months to play out, and the client had to jump through several hoops just to prove the money was hers.
Each case that the attorneys testified about ended with the client getting their property back, but that’s only because, as the lawyers stressed, they were able to get free legal assistance. Because forfeiture and property seizure is done through civil courts, defendants aren’t provided a lawyer by the state, making it near impossible to retrieve money and property through the NYPD’s arcane and confusing system.
“Can a lay person be reasonably expected to defend themselves against the NYPD in their efforts to retrieve their property?” Asked council member Torres during the hearing.
“I don’t think a person can reasonably be expected to go through any of the administrative steps required to go about retrieving their property,” answered Bronx Defenders attorney Adam Shoop.
“So what you’re telling me is that property retrieval is reserved for those that can afford it?” Torres asked.
“Yes,” Shoop testified.
At the hearing, the NYPD stated that although it believes that its software would be incapable of providing the exact information the bill is asking for, it is willing “to work with the Council to achieve the goal of the bill.”
Advocates are hopeful that the revised bill would come to a full council vote at some point within the next year.