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Court ruling sets higher bar for police, prosecutors in asset seizures

The Supreme Court said property can be seized only when it is an integral part of the crime and only if it isn't excessive, compared with the underlying crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen at near

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen at near sunset in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 18, 2018. Photo Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

ALBANY -- The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the ability of state and local police to seize cars, cash and homes from criminal suspects has raised the bar for such forfeitures in New York state, authorities said Thursday.

Wednesday's decision said local law enforcement must follow federal practices that allow seizure of property only when it is an integral part of the crime and only if the property seized isn’t disproportionately large, compared  with the underlying crime.

“Funding our legal system through fines, fees and forfeiture from the accused creates a cycle of criminalization and poverty that has a devastating impact on individuals, families, and entire communities, especially low-income communities of color,” said Susan Gottehrer, director of the New Civil Liberties Union's Nassau County chapter.

Prosecutors, however, said the forfeitures are an important tool.

“Assets seized from those convicted of crime sends the message that crime doesn’t pay and allows law enforcement to fund important public safety initiatives like drug treatment, school programs, gun buybacks and special enforcement initiatives at no cost to taxpayers,” said Brendan Brosh, a spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas.

“Asset forfeiture is an indispensable tool to protect victims, and our current practices are already in complete conformity with this latest decision,” said the Suffolk County district attorney’s office in a statement.

The high court decision will alert police and prosecutors that they can’t levy excessive fines and forfeitures of property owned by suspects, sometimes even before they are charged, said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel of the nonprofit Institute for Justice, a government watchdog group based in Arlington, Virginia.

The ruling also alerts defense attorneys and their clients that they have a new tool against asset seizures deemed excessive under law, said Bullock. “This isn’t a cure-all,” he said. “But it’s an important first step against the worse abuses.”

In New York State, law enforcement  reported seizing more than $43.4 million in assets in 2017 alone, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Under law, the proceeds can be used for programs, equipment, funding investigations, prosecutions and community service groups. 

The Nassau County DA’s office seized $3.44 million worth, while the Suffolk County DA’s office took in $3.46 million, according to the report. The Suffolk DA’s office ranked second in the state with 16 vehicle seizures.

Some community groups could see less revenue because of the decision. “Quite frankly, we don’t mind the irony of law enforcement taking money away from drug dealers and using those dollars to clean up the mess they helped create,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, CEO of the Family and Children’s Association in Mineola.

In New York, current practice already prohibits some of the abuses in other states that led to the ruling, such as seizing cash from motorists without levying any criminal charge, said David Soares, the Albany County district attorney, speaking for the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.

Soares said that before the high court's ruling, some local law enforcement might have seized the house from which a drug dealer sold cocaine. After Wednesday’s decision, he said, the house would have to be shown to be an integral part of the crime, such as a drug laboratory.

“I kind of agree with the Supreme Court on the fact that we shouldn’t make this stuff excessive, and we should never use the tools that are given to us and abuse it,” said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder.

“Initially, there is going to be a lot of litigation over what is excessive,” said Robin Charlow, a professor at Hofstra Law School. She said, however, that it may be difficult for  anyone to try to recover property in a case that is closed.

“When personal property is  confiscated, it is being held in trust," said Assemb. Thomas Abinanti (D-Tarrytown), chairman of  his chamber’s Oversight, Analysis and Investigation Committee, who sponsors a bill seeking more transparency in forfeitures. "This is now a higher bar."

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