By Ronald Fraser
Public funding of law enforcement agencies and the courts is meant to promote a fair and publicly accountable justice system. Yet more than 100 law enforcement agencies in New York State are undermining public trust as they rake in big bucks from the seizure and forfeiture of private property.
Officially known as “civil asset forfeiture,” federal law allows local and state police to seize your cash, car or other private property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity – and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime.
The property is then turned over to the federal Department of Justice for proceedings under lax federal civil forfeiture laws – not under often more stringent state forfeiture laws. This stacks the deck against property owners.
And federal “equitable sharing” rules allow New York law enforcement agencies to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds recovered.
This gravy train is too tempting for some police departments to resist. New York State agencies fattened their budgets in 2016 by more than $28.1 million through this practice, including:
New York City Police Department, $7.6 million; New York City Office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor, $5.9 million; New York State Police, $4.1 million; and Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, $1.6 million.
In Western New York we find: Buffalo Police Department $327,401; Erie County Sheriff’s Office, $248,078; Erie County District Attorney’s Office, $149,033; Cheektowaga Police Department, $129,563; City of Lockport Police Department, $95,423; Town of Amherst Police Department, $67,766; Niagara Falls Police Department, $48,533; Jamestown Police Department, $32,855; City of Dunkirk Police Department, $19,021.
A substantial portion of these amounts are taken from completely innocent New York residents who cannot afford the legal representation needed to get their money and property back. The poor are hit the hardest.
By giving police a huge financial incentive to aggressively target forfeitable assets, rather than pursue justice, the feds invite property rights abuse.
New York lawmakers should follow the lead set by New Mexico, where the state acquires provisional title, to hold and protect all seized property and where seized property is adjudicated under New Mexico laws. With rare exceptions, seized property may not be transferred to the federal government and a person must be convicted, by clear and convincing evidence, in a state criminal court, before property can be forfeited. Finally, forfeited proceeds must be deposited in the state’s general fund.
Imposing similar restrictions on New York State law enforcement agencies would rebuild trust. Property owners in New York State would no longer wonder if their law enforcement officials are following even-handed, due-process procedures, or padding their agency’s budgets at the citizens’ expense.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project.