Long Island is among the state’s leaders in seizing assets from alleged criminals, a popular but controversial practice that has allowed for the funding of drug treatment programs and new technology for law enforcement.
The district attorney offices in Nassau and Suffolk counties ranked second and third, respectively, in the state last year for funds seized through asset forfeiture, according to an annual report from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
The Nassau district attorney’s office seized $7.1 million, such as cash, jewelry and cars. Its counterpart in Suffolk took in $4.1 million in assets through state charges, according to the report. The Manhattan district attorney’s office topped the list with more than $13 million seized last year. Combined, the two Long Island offices took in 40 percent of the $28 million seized statewide in 2016.
The use of asset forfeiture, a legal process that authorities have used for decades to seize cash and property acquired through criminal activity, has long been touted as a crime deterrent that strips the profit incentive from criminals — and a monetary reward to help law enforcement agencies fund initiatives and pay for equipment from both federal and state investigations.
The majority of assets seized on Long Island are the proceeds from the illicit drug trade, officials said, including heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids, which are fueling a deadly epidemic.
“You’re using the economics against the drug dealers, where you take the illicit gains from preying on the victims of the drug trade — the addicts — and you convert that to treatment,” said Jed Painter, counsel to Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas, who has paid for drug treatment with asset forfeiture funds. “It’s probably the best use of drug dealer money . . . you’re diminishing the demand. So you’re attacking the supply and attacking the demand at the same time.”
Prosecutors use the funds for a variety of investigative tools, including electronic wires, confidential informants, undercovers and buy-money, officials said.
In 2016, the Nassau district attorney’s office allocated $3.2 million in asset funds, to pay for things such as tactical vests for the Freeport Police Department and nearly $600,000 to the Maryhaven Center of Hope Inc., a drug rehabilitation center in Freeport, records show.
The items taken in by district attorney’s offices include assets seized through police investigations. Because prosecutors handle the legal process of acquiring the assets for all police departments, the district attorneys get a 27 percent cut. Police departments are allowed to keep 41 cents on the dollar of seized assets. A set 32 percent is designated to a statewide drug dependency fund.
Nassau and Suffolk counties topped the list of total in assets seized through federal investigations in 2016 with $2.1 million, according to the state report.
The Suffolk district attorney took in $1.7 million and Nassau $357,647 — ranked first and second in the state. Nassau also topped the list of vehicles seized with 78 last year; Suffolk placed third with 13 cars seized.
Forfeiture funds can be used for police training and equipment, drug and gang awareness programs in the community and paying restitution to crime victims, for example. But the money can’t fund the base salaries of law enforcement — although overtime is allowed — under state and federal law to minimize the potential for abuse. The Nassau County Police Department has designated more than $20 million in asset funding for the construction of a new police academy.
Nassau County police, which opened the books on its vast asset forfeiture program to Newsday in 2014, could not immediately provide figures for its seizures from last year.
An audit by the Nassau comptroller found the police’s use of asset forfeiture funds from 2011 through 2014 were “appropriate and consistent with rules and regulations.”
The Suffolk district attorney’s office couldn’t immediately provide a comprehensive list of its expenditures but has designated funds to pay for a variety of law enforcement needs: a new radio system for the county’s 10 smaller police departments to have the ability to communicate with the Suffolk County Police Department; $143,000 for equipment for the Suffolk County crime lab and medical examiner’s office, and several driving-while-intoxicated patrols and sobriety checkpoints, said Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.
In 2016, the Suffolk County Police Department took in $324,767 in state asset forfeiture and spent $164,923, according to department statistics. On the federal side, the department seized about $3.7 million and spent about $1.9 million.
The department has used the fund to buy technology for its body camera pilot program and for surveillance cameras in crime hot spots.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said the department has increased its asset forfeiture revenue by re-establishing its place on federal task forces, which allows it to split the seized assets with its investigating partners such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and by increasing the number of executed narcotics warrants.
“Asset forfeiture is definitely a useful funding stream,” said Sini. “It’s poetic justice in some ways, because we’re seizing money from criminals, usually drug dealers, and we’re using it to invest in our communities and make law enforcement safer.”
While the program has been embraced by municipalities across the country, critics argue law enforcement agencies often lack transparency in how the funds are distributed, and that the expectation and need for a constant cash flow can foster bad practices.
“Asset forfeiture is a way that law enforcement agencies have subsidized — in a massive way — their own budgets,” said Michael Bachner, a criminal defense attorney in Manhattan who has argued asset forfeiture cases in Nassau County, Manhattan and Brooklyn. “They only want the money. The asset forfeiture units are generally relentless in trying to hold onto every single nickel.”
Critics also argue that in the zeal to seize cash and property, some innocent people are unduly being stripped of their property because the burden of proof is on the owner of the seized property to prove it’s not linked to criminal activity. In New York, owners of seized property can challenge the action in court within 15 days of the seizure.
Painter said Singas implemented an application process with an advisory committee to award the funds — and put information on the program and its expenditures online — in the spirit of transparency.
“The only way you can try to quell any kind of suspicion about it, is being as open as possible about the process and how you’re spending it . . . showing exactly where the money’s going, exactly the process, linking to the application, showing our criteria,” Painter said.
In 2016, the district attorneys in Nassau and Suffolk together accounted for nearly 40 percent of the $28 million in assets seized in criminal cases under state laws. They ranked second and third in the state.
1: Manhattan $13,664,105.59
2: Nassau $7,162,376.21
3: Suffolk $4,112,444.61
4: Queens $1,334,245.01
The two county DAs accounted for nearly 80 percent of the $2.6 million seized statewide in federal criminal cases, and ranked first and second statewide in this category.
1: Suffolk $1,781,275.46
2: Nassau $357,647.57
3: Erie $150,059.47
The two counties combined got nearly two-thirds of all the cars seized in the state, 91 out of 139. They ranked first and third in this category.
1: Nassau 78
2: Putnam 23
3: Suffolk 13
4: Seneca 11
Source: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services