MANHATTAN (CN) — Displeased by what she described as the New York City Police Department’s “troublesome” litigation tactics, a judge advanced a lawsuit that asks what happens to millions of unclaimed dollars seized in civil forfeitures.
Bronx public advocates have spent the better part of two years hunting down documents that would shine light on the NYPD’s use of civil forfeiture laws to seize millions of dollars in cash and property.
Rejecting a motion to dismiss the case in Manhattan Supreme Court, Judge Arlene Bluth accused the NYPD and its former Commissioner Bill Bratton on Friday of playing games to avoid disclosures.
“The record before this court shows that respondents have only now, more than two years after petitioner’s FOIL request, attempted to describe the ways in which these records are kept,” Judge Arlene Bluth wrote, abbreviating Freedom of Information Law.
“This type of ‘gotcha’ litigation tactic is especially troublesome in a FOIL proceeding where petitioner does not have access to the database containing the requested information,” Bluth added.
The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit advocacy group, has been seeking the records since 2014, when it filed requests for documents that show NYPD reported more than $6 million in seized cash and property in the previous fiscal year.
That gave the NYPD a balance sheet of more than $68 million in seized currency in any given month in 2013, the group said.
The Bronx Defenders said the NYPD was stonewalling, and filed the pending lawsuit last year.
“NYPD property seizures affect tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year and generate millions of dollars in revenue for the City,” the defenders’ Adam Shoop said in a statement at the time. “The public has a right to know what the NYPD is doing with this money and the internal policies governing these practices.”
Shoop said in an interview Friday that the information he seeks will help his clients gain due-process rights over their seized assets.
“It’s a really opaque bureaucratic process over how one gets their property back,” Shoop said.
In addition to the millions of dollars in cash the NYPD designates as “unclaimed,” the property can include cars, house keys, cellphones and prescription medication.
The NYPD stores this data in an online database known as PETS, the Property and Evidence Tracking System.
Judge Bluth noted that it took litigation to force the NYPD and Bratton to act.
“As an initial matter, the court observes that respondents’ tactic of producing documents
after petitioner filed the instant proceeding gives the appearance that respondents had no
intention of timely responding to petitioner’s request,” she wrote.
The NYPD’s reasons for avoiding scrutiny appear to have evolved along with the litigation. The judge said the department first insisted no records existed, then argued that disclosing the data would be “extremely burdensome.”
“The fact is that there are too many outstanding questions regarding the capabilities of PETS to generate, in whatever form, the information petitioner seeks,” the ruling states.
To investigate these questions, Bluth set oral arguments for July 25.
New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci said that the city will review the ruling with the NYPD and consider next steps.