Stop and Seize: civil forfeiture in New York City

When someone is arrested in New York City, they empty their pockets, and the police take the things they have on them – cash, wallet, keys, phones. The arrestee gets a voucher, which might say the items are “arrest evidence,” or it might say “safekeeping.” Or it might say “forfeiture.”

Even if you’re not charged with a crime, or a case is dismissed and sealed, the police can still seek to keep your stuff, your car, or your cash.

That’s exactly what happened to Harold Stanley.

Last February, Harold Stanley was on his block one evening, in the Morrissania section of the Bronx. He decided to drive to McDonalds, and when he came back, sat in his parked car to eat.

“Next thing I know somebody’s tapping on my window, telling me get out the car,” he said. “And I said ‘For what?’ Officer said don’t make it harder than what it is.”

Police officers searched him and his car, then handcuffed him and took him to the local precinct. He wasn’t sure why he was under arrest until he arrived there, when he was told he made a drug sale. After several hours, he was released with a desk appearance ticket. But the $1,300 he had in his pocket was not returned.

How much cash is taken a year, from who, where those people live – that’s all unknown. There are virtually no public statistics on the practice of civil forfeiture. We were able to get information on money forfeited in the course of criminal cases.

The city’s District Attorneys seized $46 million through forfeiture in 2014, as part of criminal cases, according to records received through a Freedom of Information request. Those are criminal forfeitures. How much the NYPD took in civil forfeiture cases like Stanley’s is unknown. A Freedom of Information request from May is still outstanding. Also unknown: whether certain places or races are disproportionately impacted by forfeiture, since there is no data on where items are taken, and from whom.

Police also seize people’s cars – about 2,400 cars in 2014, according to a Freedom of Information request filed by Brooklyn Defenders Service. That’s what happened to Courtney Melvin. Police found a weapon in her car, and charged her passenger with weapons possession. Although she was not convicted of a crime, police still sought to keep her car.

For Melvin, as for many drivers, losing a car is a big deal. She works in Staten Island, and found herself commuting by ferry, train and bus.

There is a sort of bail hearing for cars, where drivers can ask for their car back while a criminal case is sorted out.

Thomas O’Brien, a lawyer at Legal Aid, brought the case, Krimstock v. Kelly, that created the hearing process. But fewer than 600 people requested a hearing last year, probably because that process can be confusing and opaque, involving lots of single-spaced forms and strict deadlines. The number of hearings actually held is tiny — just 15 last year, according to NYPD records. O’Brien said the cases that make it to a hearing are the tip of the iceberg.

“Underneath the surface, there are many, many more cases where the police are just seizing cars, and if they give them back, it’s because people are giving them money,” he said.

A cash settlement is usually between $500 and $2,500, attorneys told WNYC. Almost 300 people settled before their hearing in 2014. These forfeitures are a civil case, which means people don’t get public defenders. Most navigate the process with no attorney, because hiring someone often costs more than the car is worth.

This reporting was long and painstaking. And it feels like we’ve just scratched the surface. There may well be hearings on civil forfeiture at the City Council before too long. Ritchie Torres, who represents communities in the South Bronx hit hard by this practice, introduced a bill seeking more public data on civil forfeiture from the NYPD.

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