NYPD admits accounting for its civil-forfeiture seizures is hopeless
The New York City Council is considering a bill that would require the NYPD to offer annual reports of how much money and property it collects as potential evidence through the process of civil forfeiture. The bill aims to make civil forfeiture more transparent, but the NYPD claims it has no idea how much money it seized from New Yorkers and others it arrested last year.
Late last week, in testimony to the city council's Public Safety Committee, NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner said detailing department seizures is technologically unworkable based on limitations of the NYPD's Property and Evidence Tracking System (PETS).
"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 Messner, according to the Village Voice. "The only way the department could possibly comply with the bill would be a manual count of over half a million invoices each year."
PETS was put in place in 2012, yet NYPD officials told the council last week that the system is too antiquated to meet the demands of the proposed transparency bill. Upon installation of PETS, however, the NYPD touted it as able to offer "the cradle-to-grave life cycle of property and evidence... visible upon demand," and entered the system into the 2012 Computerworld Honors, which acknowledges "those who use Information Technology to benefit society,"according to Ars Technica.
When asked by the council whether they had come to the hearing with any kind of idea of how much money the NYPD actually seized last year, the officials said they did not.
"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 city councilmember Ritchie Torres during the hearing. "I’m skeptical about the NYPD’s testimony."
To retrieve money or property, the defendant, whether or not they were charged with the crime they were accused of, must supply their own lawyer given the seizure is done through civil, not criminal, courts. Thus, the civil-forfeiture retrieval process is one most people cannot afford.
The NYPD did say during the hearing that, in 2015, more than $11,650 was legally forfeited, in which the NYPD made the case to a court why it should keep an amount of seized assets. But much more money is kept by the NYPD, given the process it takes to retrieve money or property seized by police as evidence is nearly impossible unless one has the wealth and legal resources to navigate the department's administrative requirements for retrieval.
"Can a lay person be reasonably expected to defend themselves against the NYPD in their efforts to retrieve their property?" Torres asked Bronx Defenders attorney Adam Shoop during the hearing, according to Village Voice.
Shoop responded: "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."
The Bronx Defenders defense lawyers offer legal representation to low-income New Yorkers.
Though the NYPD says true reports of its seizures is next to impossible, Bronx Defenders admitted documents as part of its testimony detailing NYPD's own accounting figures of such seizures. Those documents show that the NYPD had nearly $69 million in cash from seizures as of December 2013. That amount had been seized over a number of years, as the documents showed that the department brought in millions in revenue each month.
While NYPD officials maintained that the department's technology is incapable of meeting the bill's demands, they said the NYPD is willing "to work with the Council to achieve the goal of the bill," Village Voice reported.
In January, the Bronx Defenders filed a federal lawsuit — Encarnacion v. City of New York — that challenged the NYPD's civil-forfeiture process. The lawsuit, which has now reached class-action status, alleged that the NYPD's failure to return items it seized related to cases that have been terminated is a violation of constitutional rights.
"Once a criminal case is over, the US Constitution does not permit the City to withhold someone's personal property without justification," attorney Eric Brenner said in June. "This City's current policies violate the basic rights of individuals who need the cash and phones that the City is refusing to return."
Bronx Defenders' Molly Kovel added: "For people without access to an attorney, the hurdles they face to get their property back are simply too high, and they often give up. We hope this case leads to much-needed reform."