Civil Asset Forfeiture

NYPD Says It Has No Backup of Its Asset Forfeiture Database and No Way to Retrieve It

The database cost $25 million.



Paul Martinka / Splash News/Newscom

he New York Police Department (NYPD) admitted in court yesterday that it has no backup of the database that tracks the millions of dollars' worth of property it seizes each year through arrests and civil asset forfeiture.

Bronx Defenders, a legal aid group, had filed a suit to access public records on the NYPD's forfeiture program. In the course of the trial, Courthouse News reports, the city said it had no feasible way of querying its asset forfeiture database and no backup of the database:

[Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arlene] Bluth appeared gobsmacked Tuesday to hear about the precarious position of data in the police department's PETS database, short for Property and Evidence Tracking System.

"Do you want the Daily News to be reporting that you have no copy of the data?" Bluth asked Giovanatti.

"That deserves an exposé in the New York Times," the judge added later.

[New York City attorney Neil] Giovanatti struggled to assuage Bluth's concerns. "He says the database is in IBM," the attorney said when asked whether any NYPD personnel understand that system's back end.

As Courthouse News notes, the police paid a contractor $25 million to build the database.

The NYPD's asset forfeiture program rakes in millions in seized cash and property from arrests every year. Bronx Defenders filed the suit after the department stonewalled the group's 2014 public records request for information from the property tracking database. In its response to the suit, the NYPD claims that it can't access such bulk data, but a technical expert for Bronx Defenders said in an affidavit Tuesday that such searches would be possible through direct queries of the database.

"No one in the room yesterday really understood what PETS is capable of doing or not doing, and I think that's the problem," Bronx Defenders attorney Adam Shoop says. "We keep going through these rounds of briefings. Each time we learn a little more from the NYPD about how it operates, but it almost raises just as many questions as it answers."

According to the few records Bronx Defenders did receive, the NYPD reported more than $6 million in revenue in 2013 from seized cash, forfeitures, and property sold at auction, and it had a balance of more than $68 million in seized currency in any given month of that year. The records indicate that the vast majority of seized assets are simply forfeited by default after the deadline passes for the property owner to go through the burdensome, Byzantine process of trying to retrieve them.

"One of the recurring problems we see in assisting our clients is that the bureaucratic obstacles in getting property back—even property that the NYPD is not claiming a forfeiture interest in—are just so onerous that people are giving up," Shoop says. "When the deadline passes for people to put in their claim, the NYPD gets to count the money as revenue under the law."

The NYPD's "unclaimed cash and property" sales totaled $6.5 million in 2014 and more than $7 million in 2015, according to the lawsuit.

The police made similar claims last year in testimony before the New York City Council, in response to a bill to require annual reporting on the department's asset forfeiture activities. The Village Voice reports:

"Attempts to perform the types of searches envisioned in the bill will lead to system crashes and significant delays during the intake and release process," said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Robert Messner, while testifying in front of the council's Public Safety Committee. "The only way the department could possibly comply with the bill would be a manual count of over half a million invoices each year."

When asked by councilmember Dan Garodnick whether the NYPD had come to the hearing with any sort of accounting for how much money it has seized from New Yorkers this past year, the NYPD higher-ups testifying simply answered "no."

The NYPD won't have much of a choice in the matter soon. That transparency bill passed the city council, and the mayor signed it into law this past summer. It will go into full effect in 2019. Some boroughs in the city have also streamlined the process of retrieving seized property in response to criticisms from civil liberties groups.

But Bronx Defenders are asking for more information than the bill will require the police to produce—the group wants granular, month-to-month data. And so their suit continues. A followup hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for December, where the NYPD will presumably respond to Bronx Defenders' claim that it is technically possible to get data from its database.