Asset Forfeiture

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

The database cost $25 million.

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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.

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  1. “He says the database is in IBM,” the attorney said when asked whether any NYPD personnel understand that system’s back end.

    “Yeah, that’s the ticket. And they access it using Microsoft.”

    1. The Microsoft. THE Microsoft. Luddite.

      1. Does it have the WiFi?

  2. So, Lois Lerner gets a job with the NYPD after the Obama fiasco.

    Figgers.

    1. Fegroes

  3. the city said it had no feasible way of querying its asset forfeiture database

    My guess: the contractor went through every computer in the NYPD and renamed all of the recycle bins to “Asset Forfeiture Database.”

    1. Software Developer checking in.

      The article is short on specifics, so I don’t know if this system is a true relational database, but as far as I know, all databases are designed from the ground up to be query-able.

    1. You’re assuming they want to be able to keep and access a database of their ill-gotten gains.

    2. While not really a database, still way too complex for the popo.

      1. Fine.

        Though I suspect a spreadsheet would meet all their needs. Or it would in a government that wasn’t actively stealing so much from its citizens.

    3. You have to know your customer.

      Use paper napkins to write records. Automotive seizures in the Krispy Kreme boxes, cash seizures in the Dunkin Donuts boxes, etc.

      Sheesh, not that hard.

    4. It would probably be better for them to use Free Software instead of some proprietary junk.

  4. Wow, well it sounds to me like the NYPD paid $25 million dollars for a database that is expressly unaccountable. I’m wondering if the people that created that database are still alive, or still in the country at all, because they should probably be brought in for testimony at this point.

    The most surprisingly thing about New York is that anyone voluntarily lives there at all.

    1. They are probably working for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

    2. Their affidavits are in the data base, just look it up.

    3. Their dogs probably ate their homework regularly too.

    4. Well, when the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey, you have to ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

  5. “You paid for a database with write-access. Read-access is another 50 mil.”

  6. Hint to the judge:
    Tell NYPD that any item they claim to own, but cannot produce a receipt for, they have to sell and turn the proceeds over to the court. That includes the police cars, weapons, computers, office fixings, everything. From the article, at least 68 million will become available.
    Then allocate the money to hire actual lawyers to replace public defenders, and start getting people their constitutional rights.
    And have the entire IT department jailed for contempt of court until they learn how to write a simple data base query. Put the attempts on pay-per-view, and add to the lawyer fund. But prohibit them from asking their children, that would ruin the fun.

    1. That is an interesting idea…what happens if the NYPD gets audited? When their accounts ask ‘where did you get the money to buy this, and where is your receipt’ are they allowed to just say ‘we told you, we found it!’ as a legitimate answer?

      1. Apple’s old joke about it was very prescient:

        write-only memory: A form of computer memory into which information can be stored but never, ever retrieved, developed under government contract in 1975 by Professor Homberg T. Farnsfarfle. Farnsfarfle’s original prototype, approximately one inch on each side, has so far been used to store more than 100 trillion words of surplus federal information. Farnsfarfle’s critics have denounced his project as a six-million-dollar boondoggle, but his defenders point out that this excess information would have cost more than 250 billion dollars to store in conventional media.

        1. Whoops, meant this for Enjoy Every Sandwich.

    2. Sounds like they don’t have the IT group in court, for whatever reason.

  7. A database that you can’t get data out of…it’s a provocative concept.

    1. BlackHole?

  8. What the NYPD needs is a dataweb, or a spreadathingy.

  9. So if they can’t tell how much money they’ve collected, then how do they know how much they can spend?

    1. As I understand it, they can tell how much they’ve collected, but not from whom, when, or under what circumstances.

  10. 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

    I’ve got a couple of suggestions:

    1) Use the ‘nolock’ with your queries. I.E. Select * from NYPD_DataBase (nolock)

    2) Run these queries during off hours. You know… just like every other IT organization does when it needs its database servers to do some heavy lifting.

    I’ve just read the Courthouse News original article. The database was created in 2009. I had assumed it was something ancient created in the 1980s (or even before) and was a legacy application that few, if any, knew how to work with.

    The database is a modern, IBM DB2 database which means it is relational and SQL can be used to directly query information from it. Any competant DBAs can provide simple answers in a day’s time.

    The NYPD may not have reporting software or the people trained to create the custom reports that are requested, but a back up COULD be made to let others delve through the data.

    The data is there and with a little bit of effort and cooperation, answers can be found.

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