The NYPD’s Civil Forfeiture System Has Taken Millions From Low-Income New Yorkers

Breaking the story in 2014, I wrote about how, for decades, the NYPD has been taking the money and possessions of anyone it arrests, or even stops on the street, under the legal pretense of civil forfeiture. The idea of seizing money or goods during an arrest originally became popular in the 1970s to take money and yachts out of the hands of drug dealers, even if they ended up beating the case anyway. Law enforcement was able to make a case against the money — possible criminals would have to prove exactly how they came to possess such amounts. Now, however, the NYPD uses the practice primarily to take money and property from the pockets of those who can least afford to get it back. Almost all of the time, the NYPD and the district attorney decline to actually pursue any type of forfeiture after they’ve seized it during an arrest. Typically, the NYPD never had a reason to take the money in the first place, and certainly not a good enough reason to hold up in court. But the process of getting your money back from the NYPD’s convoluted and arcane bureaucracy, even if you were never charged with a crime, can be so labor-intensive and maddening that many people give up.

“Because you’re not provided with a lawyer for this type of case, almost everyone tries to navigate it pro se,” said Adam Shoop, an attorney with the Bronx Defenders, stressing that those who can afford lawyers are the most likely to be able to retrieve their cash.

The Ortiz family was finally able to get a release from the district attorney’s office, which has to sign off on the return of any seized goods. But the release doesn’t legally compel the NYPD to turn the money over. After weeks of efforts by the family’s legal advocate from the Bronx Defenders, the NYPD still hasn’t loosened its grip on the cash. It told the family and their representation that their demand was “improper.” They’ve filed another demand. As of publication, they’re still waiting on a reply from the NYPD regarding their cash, even as they fight in housing court to keep their home.

“I don’t know what we’ll do if we have to leave,” Ms. Ortiz told us. “I’m disgusted by the situation and the position that the NYPD has put us in.”

Their next court date is in early September. Hopefully by then, almost four months after their rent money was taken from them for no discernible reason, they’ll have it back. And maybe sometime in the near future, the true extent of the NYPD’s plunder will come to light.

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