Every year the NYPD seizes millions of dollars in assets from innocent New Yorkers, who often have to fight a dizzying bureaucracy to get their property back. But today the City Council is poised to pass legislation that would make the practice vastly more transparent.
The bill, which is expected to pass this afternoon, will require the NYPD to release annual reports on how much they seize from New Yorkers during stops and arrests and through the use of civil forfeiture, and account for what happens to the assets after they’re in custody.
"This first-of-its-kind transparency bill will shed light on the reasons why the NYPD has seized someone's property, whether revenue is generated from property seizure, and if an individual has been able to get their property back," said Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, the bill's primary sponsor. "The legislation will help ensure that the civil forfeiture process is used legitimately.”
(Update: The bill passed 46-0, with five members absent, according to Torres' office.)
The Bronx Defenders, who represent members of a federal class action lawsuit against the city over the practice, obtained records showing that the NYPD reported more than $6 million in revenue in 2013 alone from property seizures, and had a running balance of more than $68 million in seized assets at any given month of that year.
Craig Levine, the policy director at the Bronx Defenders, says the seizures often occur “when there has been no showing of guilt,” and estimates that they net the department “easily $5 to $10 million a year.”
Levine says that even if the police department agrees that the claimant is entitled to retrieve their property, they frequently endure a “Kafkaesque process” to get it back.
“The property clerk tells them they need to show their identification documents to get their property back, but their identification documents are part of the assets that were seized,” Levine says. “It violates the most basic forms of decency, let alone the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.”
At a City Council hearing last summer to debate the changes, an NYPD representative testified that complying with the bill’s requirements “will lead to systems crashes,” despite the fact that the department has software that already keeps track of the seized property.
The proposed legislation has been debated since 2015, and its expected passage comes days after President Trump’s U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a gathering of police officials that he intended to ramp up the practice nationwide. Many law enforcement agencies rely on the seizures for their annual budgets, and abuses of the practice are legion.
In light of Sessions's comments, Torres says his legislation will "allow the public to understand how the new federal directives are being implemented on the ground by the NYPD and additionally has a provision to understand federal profit-sharing of seizures."
While the legislation does not require the NYPD to report how they spend the revenue garnered from the asset seizures, and does not make it easier for New Yorkers to retrieve their property, Torres called it "the first step to fixing property retrieval," and vowed to address the NYPD's use of seized assets once the department has filed its first annual report.
Levine called the changes "enormously important."
"There has never been any vehicle for public accountability—the police department has vigorously resisted it," Levine said. "Finally, there will be some measure of accountability."
The NYPD's press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Mayor's Office also did not respond to a request for comment.
The legislation is slated to pass this afternoon. If signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the annual reporting provision takes effect immediately, while the breakdown of revenue from seizures goes into effect on January 1, 2019. The Bronx Defenders’ federal suit against the department is still in progress.