Civil forfeiture laws are strange things that far too many people do not know about. In a nutshell, civil forfeiture laws give authorities the right to seize money and assets from people suspected of crimes. Even if a person is never convicted of the crimes they were suspected of, authorities have no obligation to return the seized money.
The dated laws were designed to drain organized crime organizations of their funds. But get this: since the forfeiture cases are civil rather than criminal matters, citizens are not entitled to legal representation when they wish to get their money back. This makes it incredibly difficult for people – especially the poor – to ever reclaim the money and assets that are rightfully theirs.
New York has some of the most dated civil forfeiture laws in the nation. Take a look at New York City, for example. The state’s administrative code, which governs the NYPD’s asset forfeiture policies, was written in 1881. The law allows NYPD officers to take the money seized from citizens during forfeitures and place the money in the NYPD pension fund. The law actually gives officers a personal financial incentive to seize the money and assets of residents.
One man recently affected by the law is Bronx resident Gerald Bryan. Bryan, a bartender, saw his home broken into by the NYPD in March of 2012. Police suspected Bryan of drug dealing. Despite not having a warrant, officers tore through his belongings, punched holes in his walls, ruined his furniture and seized $4,800 in cash. Bryan was taken into custody following the raid.
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One year later, the drug dealing case against him was dropped. But when Bryan, a completely innocent man, went to reclaim the $4,800 seized by police in their warrantless raid, he was told the money was gone. His money had been deposited into the NYPD’s pension fund.
Bryan challenged the seizure and was somewhat successful. He was given $4,800 by the state, but the money came out of the state’s general fund – not the NYPD’s pension fund. Instead of being repaid by the officers who stole his money in the first place, New York tax payers had to foot the bill. As shocking as it sounds, things like this happen every day in New York.
According to the Institute for Justice’s report, which is aptly named Policing for Profit, district attorneys and law enforcement agencies seize an estimated $70 million in cash annually in forfeitures. An incredible 85% of the people whose money is seized are never convicted of any crime.