The New York City Police Department has not bothered to back up data on millions of dollars worth of property it's seized from New Yorkers, a surprised Manhattan Supreme Court Judge learned Tuesday.
"That's insane," Judge Arlene Bluth exclaimed in court, according to Courthouse News.
The revelation, included in a civilian NYPD tech employee's affidavit, reaffirmed concerns that have brewed for years that the NYPD's civil forfeiture process, twice ruled unconstitutional, lacks an accountability system to track, protect, or rightfully return personal property. The NYPD is supposed to return property seized during an arrest once a criminal case ends, so long as the person has a signed release from prosecutors. But public defenders say these requests are often ignored without consequence.
Tuesday's hearing regarded a lawsuit that Bronx Defenders filed last August, in an attempt to force the NYPD to disclose all of the property seized, and how said property is tracked and stored.
"It's not just the property our clients are trying to get back," said Bronx Defenders staff attorney Adam Shoop, of the civil action practice. "It's their entire evidence tracking system. The reason they build it is to track not only what they have to give back to folks, but what they need as evidence in cases. [The judge] was understandably taken aback."
"Particularly given that they spent $25 million to build this," he added.
According to Bronx Defenders, the NYPD ignored multiple formal requests made through the state's Freedom of Information Law. Ultimately, disclosures included an accounting summary from 2013 that noted more than $68 million in seized money from month to month, and a revenue report from 2014. Police said they couldn't find "additional records responsive to the request," according to court papers.
The lawsuit cites a 2014 Gothamist report on civil forfeiture, which details New Yorkers' failed attempts to recover property:
In the middle of the night in March of 2012, NYPD officers burst into the Bronx home of Gerald Bryan, ransacking his belongings, tearing out light fixtures, punching through walls, and confiscating $4,800 in cash. Bryan, 42, was taken into custody on suspected felony drug distribution, as the police continued their warrantless search. Over a year later, Bryan's case was dropped. When he went to retrieve his $4,800, he was told it was too late: the money had been deposited into the NYPD's pension fund.
In court Tuesday, Bronx Defenders and a City lawyer disputed the accessibility of the data the lawyers have requested, Shoop said. City attorney Neil Giovanatti argued that police don't have the technical ability to extract data from its precarious Property and Evidence Tracking System (PETS) database. An expert hired by Bronx Defenders, computer consultant Robert Pesner, countered that "it is technologically feasible to retrieve much of the data sought."
Neither the NYPD, nor the City Law Department, immediately responded to a request for comment.
Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres introduced legislation in 2015 that would require the NYPD to give detailed annual reports on the items and money seized in arrests. It was signed into law in August.
"Next year, when NYPD has to do its first reporting, it's going to be a very limited set of data they have to produce, but by 2019 they'll have to provide info more similar to what we requested," Shoop said Thursday. Still, "We're not convinced that there's a reason why we shouldn't have this information now."
[Update 4:00 p.m.]: The NYPD issued a statement to Gothamist Thursday denying that PETS is vulnerable. "Contrary to some published reports suggesting that NYPD does not electronically back up the data in its Property and Evidence Tracking System (PETS), all such data is backed up continuously in multiple data center," stated Deputy Commissioner Stephen Davis.
Davis's statement appears to contradict a sworn affidavit from the director of Strategic Technology Programs in the NYPD's IT bureau, Christian Schedler, submitted as part of the case. In it, Schedler states:
In addition, PETS is the NYPD's only property and evidence tracking system. It is an actively functioning system. Currently, there is no secondary or back-up system, and no repository of the data in PETS and outside of PETS itself.
The NYPD did not immediately comment on this discrepancy. Meanwhile, Shoop said his team is frustrated by the NYPD's refusal to send an IT expert to the courtroom. This week's mixed messages compound that frustration.
"They rejected our every request to sit down in the same room with a person who has the technical expertise to explain how PETS operates, so we have asked the court to compel them to testify about it in court," he said. The next court appearance is December 12th.