The Bronx Defenders is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to end the lack of transparency, legal biases, and endless obstacles that low-income New Yorkers face when trying to get their money and property back from the NYPD after an arrest. Below is a breakdown of the problem and what we’re doing about it.
The NYPD makes tens of thousands of arrests every year, the vast majority of them for low-level misdemeanors. Property is seized in nearly every one of those arrests, including cash, cellphones, IDs, keys, cars, and even prescription medicine. Every person arrested by the NYPD—even if the arrest leads to complete dismissal—must deal with the burdensome process of securing a property release from the district attorney’s office and presenting it to the NYPD Property Clerk in order to get back their belongings.
Although the Rules of the City of New York specify that the DA’s Office must respond in writing within 15 days to a demand for a property release, people frequently wait much longer for a response and sometimes never get one. The burden is always on the civilian. If she or he cannot get the DA release and retrieve the property by a given deadline, the NYPD treats it as ‘unclaimed’ and keeps it. News reports based on government documents show that the NYPD retains millions of dollars each year through civil forfeiture and allegedly unclaimed property. The NYPD does not publicly account for this money and other seized property.
The South Bronx is one of the poorest and most over-policed congressional districts in the country. This makes our clients particularly vulnerable to the consequences of civil forfeiture abuses. Seized cash in amounts of $50 or $100 can mean the difference between a family eating or going hungry for the week. And in a borough where many working poor people live far from public transportation, a seized car can mean inability to commute to work.
- Ensure public access to complete, usable, regularly reported data about property seized by the NYPD. The Bronx Defenders is working with elected officials and community partners to pass legislation that would require periodic reporting to the public on the amount of property obtained by the NYPD. We’re also challenging lack of transparency on this issue before the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
- Represent those must vulnerable to civil forfeiture abuses. Through our Civil Action Practice, we are assisting hundreds of low-income Bronx residents every year who would otherwise have no legal representation in property seizure procedures. In 2015 alone we recovered over $750,000 in cash and property for over 300 clients.
- Cut the red tape out of the property retrieval process and ensure due process in civil forfeiture proceedings. Our Impact Litigation team filed a civil rights lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s unconstitutional practice of retaining people’s property without due process after their cases are over. In response to the litigation, the Bronx district attorney’s office agreed to implement a series of reforms to ensure the NYPD promptly releases personal property back to its rightful owners after a case is over.
To get involved, please contact Walter Rodriguez, Bronx Defenders Director of Policy & Community Organizing, at WalterR@bronxdefenders.org or (718) 508-3440.
To learn more about this issue, read this FAQ and watch our video!
What are your rights when the NYPD seizes your money and property? Click on the image to download Know Your Rights: Civil Forfeiture.