The Bronx Defenders and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP Secure Settlement Forcing NYPD Transparency around Property Seizures


MAY 14, 2018

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The Bronx Defenders and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP secured a settlement today that requires the NYPD to turn over detailed information — for the first time — about the millions of dollars of property it seizes during arrests.

The NYPD has never provided a meaningful accounting for the millions of dollars in cash, cars and phones it seizes, and how much of it is kept as revenue. After four years of requests and two years of litigation, the NYPD has provided The Bronx Defenders with 160,000 documents containing records of the cash, cars and cell phones it seized between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017. The Bronx Defenders will analyze the records and publicly report its findings.

Property seizure and civil forfeiture are widely used practices by the NYPD and critical components of its aggressive policing of low-level crimes, known as broken-windows policing. This practice disproportionately impacts low-income people of color and has particularly harmed people in the Bronx, where residents are more likely to carry their wages in cash. The Bronx has the highest percentage of unbanked and underbanked people in New York City.

Despite the NYPD’s widespread use of property seizures, the impact of this practice — which amounted to $72 million of seized cash in 2016 — has been shrouded in secrecy.

Little has been reported about how much of the cash and property seized during arrests is being kept as revenue by the NYPD. Historically, the only public reporting on seized property has been limited to a single line item on the NYPD’s budget titled “Unclaimed Cash and Property Sale.” In 2016, the NYPD reported keeping $7.1 million in revenue but provided no further details. The NYPD did not report a figure for 2017, but estimated that amount would grow to $8.25 million and that the figure would hold for 2018.

In response to City Council legislation aimed at more transparency and developed in partnership with The Bronx Defenders, the NYPD publicly released limited data on property seizures for 2016, which included some reporting on how the revenue was retained.

The data exposed a massive discrepancy of over $6 million between what the NYPD retained through cash forfeiture actions ($1,508) and what it retained overall from seized cash ($6.3 million).

According to documents provided by the NYPD under the Freedom of Information Law, the total amount of seized cash held by the NYPD at any given time is massive. In 2016, the monthly balance of seized currency ranged between $68 million and $72 million.

Over the course of the lawsuit, the NYPD admitted that it does not do any internal or public accounting of its property seizure or forfeiture practices, and that its $25 million technological system responsible for tracking property seizures lacks reporting functionality.  

The Bronx Defenders will analyze the documents the NYPD has turned over and publicly report on how the NYPD has dispensed with millions of dollars in seized property. This reporting will help inform what policy changes might be needed to ensure that people’s property is not kept illegally.

“Until today, the impact of the NYPD’s seizure of property and cash has only been seen and felt by the low-income people of color it routinely affects, like our clients in the Bronx,” said Adam Shoop, Legal Director of the Civil Action Practice at The Bronx Defenders. “This settlement will change that. Our lawsuit grew out of the lack of basic information around the millions of dollars of property that the NYPD seizes during arrests, like how much is being seized, how much is kept as revenue, and how much is being returned. We are pleased that this settlement will finally help answer those questions and bring New Yorkers the transparency and reform they deserve.”

The Bronx Defenders is a public defense nonprofit that seeks to radically transform the way low-income people are represented in the justice system — and in doing so, to transform the system itself.  We provide zealous, client-centered advocacy to 27,000 clients in criminal, family, immigration, and civil matters each year, and we reach thousands more through our community intake and outreach programs.

To read the settlement, click here.