The Bronx Defenders Secures Settlement Ending the NYPD’s Unconstitutional Practice of Keeping Money and Property Seized During Arrests
**FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE**
Reforms will remove often insurmountable barriers for New Yorkers seeking return of their property
BRONX, N.Y. – As the result of a settlement approved today, New York City will implement a series of reforms to ensure that the NYPD ceases its unconstitutional practice of indefinitely holding personal property from the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers arrested each year. The settlement is the outcome of a federal lawsuit filed by The Bronx Defenders and the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP in January 2016 in the Southern District of New York. The Office of the Bronx District Attorney (the “Bronx DA”)—which was not a defendant in the lawsuit—voluntarily joined the settlement and agreed to implement a series of additional significant reforms to ensure the rights of property owners are no longer violated.
The NYPD routinely confiscates cash, cell phones, and other personal property from arrested New Yorkers—particularly impacting people in the low-income communities targeted by broken windows policing, who can least afford it. Personal property that is retained as evidence must be returned to the individual once the criminal case is over unless the government has a legal basis to retain it. According to the lawsuit, the NYPD has instead imposed convoluted procedures making it virtually impossible for many people to get this property back. Each of the individual plaintiffs named in the lawsuit fought for nearly a year or more after their cases were dismissed to get their property back. None of the plaintiffs were able to retrieve their property until after they filed suit. They will each receive financial settlements, including attorneys’ fees and costs.
Although there is no public accounting of how much seized property and money the NYPD permanently retains, a City budget document states that NYPD retained $7 million in unclaimed cash and property auction proceeds as revenue in fiscal year 2015.
The lawsuit was initially filed to challenge the NYPD’s unconstitutional retention of property after a case is closed. The terms of this settlement, however, extend beyond this circumstance and apply to property held in open and closed criminal cases. As part of the settlement, the NYPD has agreed to comply with clear rules regarding the seizure and return of property; provide people with notice on how to retrieve their property; train and supervise NYPD personnel concerning these mandates; conduct audits to ensure compliance; and submit to ongoing court jurisdiction.
“Before this lawsuit, property seized at an arrest fell into a black hole of red tape—even when someone’s charges were later dismissed,” said Niji Jain, an attorney from The Bronx Defenders’ Impact Litigation Practice. “This dysfunctional and unconstitutional practice disproportionately harms the low-income communities that are targeted by broken windows policing and least able to afford these costly consequences. This long overdue settlement ensures they will no longer face insurmountable obstacles to retrieving what is rightfully theirs.”
The settlement also memorializes significant reforms that the Bronx DA has already implemented in response to the concerns raised in the lawsuit. The Bronx DA dramatically improved its response time to ensure releases for property are issued in a timely fashion. Moreover, it has implemented an electronic monitoring system to track compliance, set up a dedicated phone line so people can check the status of requests, and created a specialized property release unit to address concerns. It has also revised its practices to try to ensure property is no longer retained for improper reasons. As part of the agreement, the Bronx DA will also share data on the effect of the reforms with The Bronx Defenders.
“The constitution is clear that the government can’t hold someone’s property without a legitimate reason. But many of the people being denied their belongings didn’t have the means to hire lawyers to enforce their rights. They lost phones they were still making payments on and rent money they couldn’t replace,” said Eric Brenner of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP. “We are proud to have a part in this practice ending.”
Advocates on the case include Niji Jain, Johanna Steinberg, Adam Shoop and Alex Blocker of The Bronx Defenders; and Eric Brenner and Nafees Syed of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP.
The Bronx Defenders is a non-profit organization that provides innovative, progressive and holistic services to indigent people of the Bronx, which include criminal defense, family defense, immigration representation, civil legal services, social work support and advocacy. We represent 35,000 individuals each year and reach many more through outreach programs and community legal education. www.bronxdefenders.org