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Suffolk lawmakers OK asset forfeiture bill, unveil 'revenge porn' measure

The approved bill prevents law enforcement agencies from using seized funds for employee bonuses and gives legislators oversights on purchases that exceed $20,000.

Suffolk County seal outside the H. Lee Dennison

Suffolk County seal outside the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge on March 6, 2012. Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

A bill passed by Suffolk lawmakers on Wednesday prevents law enforcement agencies from using asset forfeiture funds for employee bonuses and gives legislators oversight on purchases with unds that exceed $20,000.

Bill sponsor Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said it would provide a check on spending of the funds collected during criminal investigations, which are used by the district attorney, police, sheriff and probation departments without legislative approval. Under previous District Attorney Thomas Spota, $3.25 million in bonuses was paid to attorneys from 2012 to 2017. His predecessor, James Catterson, used asset forfeiture funds to pinstripe cars and for a secretary’s retirement watch.

Earlier versions of the bill would have required prior legislative approval for any expenditure over $3,500. But law enforcement agencies opposed that version as too cumbersome.

The current bill, which passed 15-0, with three abstentions, requires purchases over $20,000 to be reviewed by the county executive, presiding officer and chair of the public safety committee. Within six days, any one of the three can request that the purchase be considered by the public safety committee at its next meeting. They would have the opportunity to discuss the purchase in executive session.

“This gives us a level of oversight about how asset forfeiture funds are spent before they’re out the door,” Calarco said after the vote. “It helps restore confidence in the process.”

The abstentions were by Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), Thomas Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma) and Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

Krupski said there was concern from East End police chiefs. Muratore called it a “feel good bill” and said he trusted the “integrity and ethics” of those running the law enforcement agencies. Trotta said he opposed the bill because it didn’t do enough to increase transparency. Trotta, though he voted no on the bill, said the clerk’s record marked him as an abstention.

Lawmakers said they were surprised last year to learn of the district attorney bonuses. Spota’s administration has maintained the payments met state guidelines on the use of asset forfeiture money.

Calarco acknowledged the bill calls for less oversight than originally proposed, but he said it and a bill passed by the Legislature last year, which requires quarterly reporting of asset forfeiture spending, would give lawmakers a clear idea of how the money is spent.

However, those reports, submitted by Suffolk law enforcement agencies, have reported only broad categories of spending and have not met the standard laid out in the law, according to bill author Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket).

District Attorney Timothy Sini, who took office this year, said Calarco’s bill “is a really good model of how the legislature can pass effective legislation and receive support of law enforcement.”

Meanwhile, a proposed local law to make it a crime to engage in “revenge porn” — use of intimate images mainly on the web without consent — was unveiled Wednesday at a news conference in Riverhead.

Democratic lawmakers William Lindsay III and co-sponsor Monica Martinez called for the legislation because New York State has failed to enact legislation to protect victims — often young women — and provide a civil cause of action to hold assailants responsible for their actions.

“I felt imperative not to wait any longer for this legislation,” Lindsay said. “As a father of a teenage daughter and a young son .   . . I would not want to see this harm any of my children or any of my constituents.” He added that 40 of 50 states, as well as New York City and Washington D.C., have such legislation.

The proposal would make depicting sex or intimate body parts without the person’s consent a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Officials say the counties are not empowered to legislate felonies.

Sini called the proposal “extremely important .  .  . to close the loop,” saying “there is nothing in the state or in the county that criminalizes the act. And Legis. Lindsay’s bill does just that. “

The district attorney’s office was only able to get a conviction in May to an “innovative theory of sex-tortion” in which a defendant threatens to use images unless a victim pays money or agrees to engage in sex acts, Sini said.

“The damage revenge porn does to our girls and young women is incalculable and the notion that this could drive someone to suicide is not an exaggeration,” he added.

Martinez, a former school assistant principal, said she personally knew of a young girl who shared intimate photos with her boyfriend, which a friend of his got hold of and texted and put them on social media. “This poor young child tried to commit suicide because of the name calling and harassing being done by her peers. This is no joke — this is happening in our schools and .  .  . it is real.”

Laura Ahearn, of Crime Victims Center and Parents of Megan’s Law, estimated that one in 25 nationally have been threatened or victimized by revenge porn — 10 million nationwide. In one case, Ahearn said, a woman’s ex-boyfriend, angry about their breakup, first sent explicit pictures to her friends and later to her school district, where she was a teacher. “He destroyed her career and she had no recourse,” she said.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague), along with five other Democratic lawmakers and Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., said he expected the measure to get wide legislative support.

County Executive Steve Bellone, also a Democrat, backs the measure, saying it “provides important protections for victims, who are often teenagers.”

A public hearing on the proposed revenge porn law will be held Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Suffolk County legislative offices in Hauppauge.

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