The New York City Council’s Public Safety Committee considered a bill on Thursday that would shine a light on the NYPD’s seizure activity. Under legislation proposed by Councilmember Ritchie Torres, and co-sponsored by 37 councilmembers, the NYPD would have to submit reports each year disclosing the amount of cash, vehicles, wallets, phones and other types of property that were seized and retained, including properties taken for civil forfeiture and held as evidence. In the past two years alone, a dozen states have enacted similar laws for forfeiture transparency.
But at the bill’s hearing, Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner warned that “Attempts to perform the type of searches envisioned in the bill will lead to system crashes and significant delays during the intake-and-release process.” “The only way the department could comply with the bill,” Messner continued, “would be a manual count of over half a million invoices each year.”
Figures provided by the NYPD to the committee showed that in 2015, police retained just $11,653 in cash and 98 vehicles from civil forfeiture court proceedings. Bizarrely, “officials claim the only items cops can keep track of are off-road vehicles, such as ATVs and dirt bikes,” the New York Post reported.
Those figures are implausibly low. Just days before the council hearing, a NYPD patrol unit tweeted that it seized $18,000 from a man during an arrest for possessing a “gravity knife.” Although it’s unclear if the man was criminally charged and why the cash was seized, according to the Village Voice, “almost every pocketknife on the market today can be considered a gravity knife,” leading to thousands of arrests each year.
By its own admission, the figures provided by the NYPD do not include seized properties uncontested by their owners. Since property owners do not have a right to court-appointed attorney for civil forfeiture proceedings, the cost of hiring counsel is often greater than the value of the seized property. So many owners are forced to walk away.
“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,” Councilmember Torres said during the hearing. “I’m skeptical about the NYPD’s testimony.”
Other sources suggest that the NYPD’s forfeiture program is immense. According to documents obtained by the Bronx Defenders, the NYPD collected $6 million in forfeiture revenue in 2013 and “had a balance of over $68 million in seized currency in any given month in 2013.” Earlier this year, the Defenders filed a lawsuit to compel the NYPD to disclose its records on cash and property seizures.
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In 2014, a wide-ranging investigation by The Washington Post found that since 9/11, the NYPD participated in 2,167 cash seizures, collecting $27 million. All of those seizures were conducted “without search warrants or indictments.”
Tellingly, Steven Kessler, who once headed the forfeiture unit at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, estimated that people were never charged with a crime in 85 percent of the NYPD’s forfeiture cases.