Judge Smacks NYPD For Its 'Gotcha' Tactics In Forfeiture Public Records Lawsuit

from the you're-the-worst dept

New York’s court system is finally pushing back against the NYPD’s refusal to provide better accounting of its forfeiture programs. Late last year, the NYPD informed people requesting information on seizures it had no way of compiling this data for them. Its $12 million software — meant to provide “cradle-to-grave” tracking of seized property — apparently couldn’t handle routine inquiries about seizure totals.

When the NYPD did decide to talk about its forfeiture operations, it used incomplete and misleading numbers. It claimed to have forfeited only around $12,000 in 2015, something miles away from the $69 million estimate of seized cash-on-hand others had cobbled together using info the NYPD had managed to turn over. According to numbers the NYPD said its software couldn’t compile, the department had generated $6 million in revenue in 2015 alone.

The Bronx Defenders, a group of public defenders, has been trying for nearly four years to force the NYPD to turn over documents related to its forfeiture programs. The NYPD has a few of these, including an unofficial program that turns personal belongings into “evidence” upon arrest and forces those with dismissed charges or acquittals to jump through a number of time-consuming and expensive hoops to reclaim their belongings — which include things like cellphones, cash, credit cards, and prescription medication.

The NYPD’s refusal to cooperate with the Bronx Defenders’ FOIL request has led to a lawsuit. The city moved to have it dismissed, but Judge Arlene Bluth doesn’t see much merit in the NYPD’s arguments. Or actions.

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.


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.

In the dismissal of the city’s motion, the judge criticizes the NYPD for its constant claims its software can’t provide the information the plaintiffs are seeking. The plaintiffs have pointed out they don’t need aggregate data. They’re willing to take raw data, copies of original documents, or whatever else might allow them to get a better handle on the forfeiture programs the NYPD doesn’t want to discuss. The NYPD, however, keeps pointing at its expensive (but apparently worthless) PETS (Property and Evidence Tracking System) software and shrugging.

The judge points out [PDF] that the NYPD has pushed the Bronx Defenders into a catch-22 in hopes of keeping this information from being made public.

Respondents have effectively changed their argument from stating that no responsive documents exist to insisting that producing the information would be too burdensome. This argument directly relates to a troubling assertion by petitioner that respondents refused to confer with petitioner about the way in which these records are kept. 21 NYCR 1401.2(b)(2) requires the records access officer to “assist persons seeking records to identify the records sought, if necessary, and when appropriate, indicate the manner in which the records are filed, retrieved or generated to assist persons in reasonably describing records.” It is obvious that it would be necessary to assist a petitioner seeking records from a database under the complete control of the agency and a database not available for public use.

Otherwise, petitioner is forced to make requests without any knowledge of the capabilities of the database. That is what has occurred here. Respondents do not directly contest this point in their reply to the cross-motion and simply assert that they have no duty to solicit additional information about the requests. While that might be true, there is a difference between soliciting more information and assisting the requestor in reasonably describing the records sought especially, where, as here, the records are kept on a specialized database.

In other words, the NYPD is claiming requesters must know all the nuances and intricacies of a database they’re never allowed to access. If they don’t, then the NYPD is under no obligation to assist them in any way. This is a common government tactic and not solely limited to the NYPD, although this agency has been referred to as worse than the FBI, CIA, and NSA when it comes to FOI responsiveness.

Judge Bluth goes on to state the NYPD’s actions have been, at best, disingenuous.

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. 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. Respondents’ claims about the burdensome nature of producing individual invoices clearly demonstrates the purpose of assisting a requestor–it is consistent with the spirit of FOIL to let a requestor know how records are kept so that the petitioner can conform requests to receive the information sought and try to avoid unduly burdening an agency.

The NYPD has long shown it has no interest in following the letter of FOIL law, much less its spirit. For requesters, this means the path to responsive documents often leads through home team courtrooms. It’s a trip not many are willing to make and the NYPD knows it.

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Comments on “Judge Smacks NYPD For Its 'Gotcha' Tactics In Forfeiture Public Records Lawsuit”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Time to break out the stick

I’d love it if judges in cases like this, where the recipient of a FOIA/FOIL request are blatantly stonewalling because they can the judge basically handed the one making the requests a ‘Get whatever you want’ order.

"Oh, you want them to know everything about the system before you’re willing to help them? Alright, in that case you’re ordered to give them full access to it, under supervision of a third-party, so that they can learn about it and do the search themselves."

Perhaps if there were actual penalties for abusing the system agencies would be less quick to do so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Give me a break

Worthless judge, “smacks” NYPD.

Call us when a Judge actually does this for REALZIES! Mmkay?
I know it all has to start somewhere, but please stop overplaying your hand. This judge didn’t do shit in any meaningful way.

When you see a Judge hold them in actual contempt… then we can talk about this!

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:


The PrettyDarnedSpecialDB engine seems to lack a few important features. It can’t COUNT(), SUM(), run queries, or display (or export) data. It must have a really interesting architecture…


Oh, of course! They’re storing it on that printer. You know, the one that feeds its printed output directly to the shredder…?

Should have named it ShredItAllDB.

ECA (profile) says:


1. SINCE the software seesm to be PART of the CITY, and PAID by CITY funds…ASK FOR A COPY..
THEn ask for a COPY of the data base..

2. IF this is SUCH a hard job to do with SAID software, HOW int he world can they contend that is has ANY WORTH in ANY CRIMINAL CASE…
(scare them more)

3. CONTENTION..make a LIST of things taken, FILL IT UP with NEXT YEARS XMAS…REQUEST RETURN…NOW..its part of the Judgment ISNT IT?? IF good not returned in SAME/EQUAL value and condition…SUE THEM AGAIN..

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: fUNNY?

HOW int he world can they contend that is has ANY WORTH in ANY CRIMINAL CASE…

The thing is, forfeiture is not criminal–it’s civil. A lawsuit against your assets in which you-the-victim have to prove your assets are innocent. (Good luck with that.)

The cops don’t need evidence to stand up in court: they only need enough tracking to know which assets have yet to be converted.

I think when the Bronx Defenders finally get a look, they’ll find that converted assets are no longer listed; that they’re routinely deleted. Wouldn’t want to keep any records of what was stolen in the past.

Daydream says:

Re: Just a reminder for everyone before you post:

Internet trolls are not like normal trolls.
Acid, that is, acidic remarks do not stop them from regenerating.
Flaming and/or sick burns won’t stop them from coming back either.
Nor do they turn to stone, or in any other way stop if you expose them to sunlight (or their claims to the light of truth).

The most effective way to banish internet trolls is by performing the Mizaru-Kikizaru-Iwazaru ritual.
As part of the ritual, it is necessary that you avert your eyes from the internet troll, don’t acknowledge what they are saying, and DEFINITELY don’t respond to them!

D.C. Pathogen (profile) says:

Here is what the Judge Should do

It is so ordered by Judge whomever on this date that that the NYPD immediately and forthwith stop collecting property as evidence until the NYPD can show this court that there is an effective system in place to track and report on evidence and property seizures.

There I wrote it for you, just fix up the legal-eez for your jurisdiction and copy, paste, sign and date.

DarkKnight (profile) says:


The only logical reason the NYPD would be making it near impossible to obtain information on seized property, is that the property is being stolen and they are covering their tracks. There is no other logical reason. Why would the NYPD be seizing anyone’s “credit cards”? Those can be cancelled and made unusable, with one phone call by the account holder to the issuer? Bunch of crooks!!

Bruce C. says:

If I were a defending lawyer in a criminal case..

I would do my best to use the statements made in this case about the deficiencies of the PETS system to cast doubt on the chain of custody and reliability of any physical evidence brought forward by the NYPD. “Oh, the records show that this evidence was locked in the evidence room on April 1? What system did you use to verify those records? Are you aware that the NYPD has stated in (this case) that the PETS system does not have the capability to accurately report inventories, provenance, dates of acquisition, etc…”

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