Long Island's two county police departments ended last year with more than $31 million in their coffers from cash and property taken through the use of asset forfeiture -- a legal practice that departments have used for a wide range of expenses, including out-of-state conferences and high-tech surveillance equipment.
Authorities defend the practice as a deterrent to crime that breaks up illicit networks, strips the profit incentive from activities such as drug dealing, and helps pay for crime-fighting efforts.
"These are ill-gotten gains," said Det. Sgt. Patrick Ryder, head of the Nassau police asset forfeiture and intelligence section, which ended 2013 with $28 million in forfeiture funds, the highest of any agency outside New York City, state records show. Suffolk County police ended 2013 with about $3.2 million in seized assets through use of forfeiture laws, department records show.
"The objective of what we do is to remove the profit from the crime. I'm your modern-day Robin Hood. I steal from the rich, the drug dealers, to give to the poor, the police," Ryder said.
But critics say asset forfeiture programs -- used by police and prosecutors in all 50 states -- often lack transparency and create an improper monetary incentive for cash-strapped law enforcement agencies to seize personal property.
Profit motive for policing
"Agencies like Nassau and Suffolk take the money and get to keep it, which creates a profit motive for policing that had not existed before," said Larry Salzman, attorney at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia, a law firm specializing in representing people wrongly targeted by forfeiture laws. "It creates this really perverse financial incentive for police and prosecutors to take more money than they might otherwise take. It diverts law enforcement resources toward the pursuit of property and money, rather than public safety."
In addition, some residents and civil rights lawyers say the programs have become too aggressive and that even innocent owners of seized cash and property have little chance of getting them back.
In New York, criminal suspects or other people whose property is seized can challenge the action during a hearing before a civil court judge within 15 days of the seizure.
In such proceedings, the burden of proof is on the owner of the seized property, who must prove it is not linked to criminal activity, according to state and federal law.
Under asset forfeiture laws, agencies such as Nassau and Suffolk police can take cash, cars, homes and other property linked to local and federal probes and then sell them at auction.
Police and prosecutors can seize someone's assets even if the person is never charged with or convicted of a crime -- as long as authorities can show probable cause that the asset was related to criminal activity or obtained as a result of it.
In their pursuit of assets, local law enforcement agencies are supposed to use guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section, which works with cops and prosecutors across the country to seize assets as part of joint investigations.
Most cash from drug dealsThe guidelines enable police and prosecutors to seize cash and property related to a wide range of illegal activity, most of it related to alleged drug dealing or criminal conspiracies.
Legal uses for forfeiture funds include equipment, training costs, community programs and some overtime costs. Improper uses include purchases of items not related to law enforcement and travel unrelated to police business.
The U.S. Justice and Treasury departments take about 20 to 30 percent of all assets seized by federal and local authorities during joint operations. The rest goes to the police.
In state cases, New York takes 32 percent of seized assets, which is put in a substance abuse fund. The rest goes to police and prosecutors.
Under state and federal law, forfeiture funds can be used to supplement an agency's budget -- not to pay base salaries or make personal purchases.
Newsday analyzed 2013 asset forfeiture records for the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, as well as the Nassau County district attorney's office.
Long Island's other major county law enforcement agency, the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, refused to release any information on its forfeiture program, including how the office spends assets seized from Long Island residents.
"The Suffolk County District Attorney's office complies with the law and [state and federal asset forfeiture] guidelines at all times," the office's spokesman, Robert Clifford, said in a statement.
The release of Nassau police documents marked the first time the department provided extensive documentation of its forfeiture program, breaking a long-standing policy of keeping its seizure totals and expenditures secret from the public.
Points of controversy
Asset forfeiture programs, and the profits reaped by them, have been at the center of several controversies in Nassau County, including the recent decision by police and prosecutors to bring back a disbanded DWI enforcement team using $1 million in forfeiture funds.
A week after reinstituting the unit, police refused the calls of several Democratic county legislators to use asset forfeiture funds to pay for more plainclothes cops. The county lawmakers, including Nassau Legislature's minority leader, Kevan Abrahams, also vowed to draft legislation that would give the legislature a role in deciding how to spend forfeiture funds.
In 2009, Nassau also came under scrutiny after then-police commissioner Lawrence Mulvey approved spending about $30,000 from seized assets on a labor-management conference at the Gurney's Montauk Resort and Seawater Spa. Police defended it as a cost related to law enforcement and allowable under federal and state guidelines. A federal audit found the expenditure violated no regulations, police said.
The Manhattan-based firm Deloitte and Touche LLP performs annual audits on the department's program, and the federal government also regularly audits the department's forfeiture operation, Ryder said.
Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos said his auditing staff is also conducting an examination of the department's overtime and asset forfeiture funds. The department hasn't been audited in two years and warrants scrutiny because it "represents one of the largest cost expenditures for the county," he said.
Police and prosecutors say asset forfeiture is crucial to prevent and prosecute crimes.
"Forfeiture funds provide critical resources that are essential to the operations of a DA's office," the Nassau district attorney's office said in a statement. "With a very small portion of the county's public safety budget, we prosecute more than 30,000 misdemeanor and felony cases annually, and forfeiture funds not only help us prosecute crimes but also help us prevent crimes from happening in the first place."
Nassau police said they have spent or appropriated all but about $4 million of the $28 million in asset forfeiture funds they had collected as of Jan. 1. Most of the money was set aside for the construction of a $25 million police academy.
Records show the department made a wide range of expenditures in 2013, including:
About $136,000 for 20 out-of-town trips for training, police conferences and a witness deposition outside the United States.
About $1.3 million for 54 police vehicles.
More than $1 million for police equipment and computer software.
The office of Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice also is among the most aggressive agencies in New York when it comes to seizing cash and property, records show. The agency has a current balance of nearly $15 million in seized assets.
Its 2013 expenditures included:
More than $100,000 for youth camp and after-school programs.
About $25,000 for a Mothers Against Drunk Driving awareness campaign.
About $42,000 for gun buyback programs.
County police in Suffolk used the confiscated funds to pay for, in 2013:
About $192,000 on travel and training.
About $282,000 in leased undercover vehicles.
About $385,000 on weapons and protective gear.
About $21,000 on police canines.
Suffolk police, along with prosecutors, would not discuss who oversees the spending of seized assets or what criteria, if any, are used to evaluate spending requests. Police also declined to disclose details about out-of-state training trips.
Nassau police said they have a four-member committee that votes on all requests to spend forfeiture funds.
Forfeiture cases, for which Nassau police first opened an office in 1992 and Suffolk in the 2000s, "flip the American principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head," Salzman said.
Hard to get assets back
Several Long Island residents whose assets were taken by federal and state authorities -- but never arrested -- told Newsday the legal process was so arduous and expensive, they eventually stopped fighting to have their property returned.
"The police found some marijuana in the house, and so they took all the money -- more than $1,000 -- that was in the next room," said a Roosevelt woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation for speaking out. "That right there was my life savings."
The woman's boyfriend was arrested on charges of selling and possessing drugs in 2012, and federal agents working with Nassau police said the more than $1,000 cash found in the home was linked to his crimes, records show.
"It was my money that I saved up, but the police said it was his money, so that was that," the woman said.
Her boyfriend was eventually convicted on drug charges and sent to prison, records show.
"It's very easy for law enforcement to take your cash and property, but it's extremely difficult for someone who deserves to have their property returned to get it back," said Jason Starr, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Many times, the people being targeted are the ones least able to live without an . . . important asset like cash or their car. And the cost of obtaining counsel, coupled with the difficulty of the process, often leads them to not fight their case or to settle."
Settlements are common in forfeiture cases, with property owners agreeing to forfeit anywhere from 20 to 60 cents for each dollar seized, experts say.
Ryder says Nassau police rarely seize assets from people not charged with crimes.
In a 2010 report assessing how well each state protects private property rights, New York received a "D" grade from the Institute for Justice. It found New York law enforcement agencies were among the most aggressive in the nation for seizing assets.
Starr and Salzman say there are so many assets being seized on Long Island, it's impossible for federal or state authorities to ensure all seizures and expenditures are legitimate. Both their organizations have called for reform that gives more protection to owners of seized property -- a request echoed recently by several lawmakers in Washington.
Despite concerns over the tactic, legal challenges to asset forfeiture have met with little success. Government seizure of property belonging to someone not charged with a crime has been upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, as has the seizure of property used in drug crimes without the knowledge of that property's owner.