Data Shows The NYPD Seized 55,000 Phones In 2020; Returned Less Than 35,000 To Their Rightful Owners

from the whole-new-way-of-looking-at-public-funding dept

The Supreme Court said law enforcement needs to get warrants to search phones seized incident to an arrest. But that decision didn't have much to say about other seizures -- some that aren't linked to any arrests at all.

Lots of police departments take phones from people. The NYPD is one of the worst about taking phones. And it's definitely the worst when it comes to returning them. If someone's not willing to engage with the labyrinthine process required to secure their return, the phones remain in the hands of the Department.

The NYPD seized 55,511 cellphones last year, according to a disclosure report released yesterday. Most likely due to the pandemic, this number is actually markedly lower than the roughly 92,000 phones they seized in 2019. But another apparent consequence of the COVID era is that far fewer people jumped through the regulatory hoops necessary to get their phones back, meaning police kept nearly 40 percent of the phones taken in 2020.

As this report notes, nearly 85% of all seizures performed by the NYPD aren't related to any criminal charges against the person whose phone has been taken. One lawyer pointed out the NYPD officers took a shooting victim's phone from them while they recovering at the hospital, claiming they needed it for "evidence."

That's the black hole a bunch of these phones are falling into: evidence. The person they're taken from may just be a victim. But once it's considered evidence, the NYPD can hold onto it until its investigation concludes and any court proceedings are finished. This can take months or years.

Even if prosecutors manage to secure a quick plea deal, that's no guarantee someone can get their phone back. And it took a court order to keep the NYPD from trapping people's phones in a Catch-22 most residents couldn't bypass.

[T]he city previously required claimants to present two forms of ID in order to get their property back—even if police had seized the owner’s driver’s license. The settlement agreement puts strict limitations on seizure of driver’s licenses and cuts the ID requirement down to one.

All cops have to do is take a phone. Phone owners, however, have a whole set of hoops to jump through, even with this settlement in place. They have to take the property voucher to the District Attorney's office and ask for a release letter. The DA does not need to grant this request. And the Office has up to 15 days to respond to any requests. All the DA Office has to do is claim the phone is still needed for investigatory reasons and applicants/owners are out of luck. This can be appealed. The only other option is to wait for more time to pass and ask again. The DA's Office and the NYPD do not notify phone owners when their possessions are no longer needed by law enforcement. That's how the NYPD ends up holding onto more than 20,000 of the 55,000 phones they seized in 2020.

Just like civil forfeiture, seizing property under the pretense that it's needed as evidence directly benefits the NYPD.

[T]he 21,660 unclaimed phones that New York City took from citizens last year will wind up being auctioned. It’s not like the NYPD needs that money: those proceeds wouldn’t even put a dent in the 10.9 billion dollars the city spent that year to fund their police force.

This is the NYPD doing something just because it can. It clearly doesn't need most of what it seizes as evidence -- not when almost every criminal case ends with a plea deal. And it certainly doesn't need the spare change selling used phones generates. But when nothing stands between it and doing what it wants, it will do what it wants. No single phone makes much of a difference to the NYPD, but it makes a big difference to those they're taken from -- people who rely on them day in and day out to stay connected, get work done, and access any number of services.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, encryption, nypd, seized phones


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2021 @ 2:27pm

    IMO, of course...

    All the DA Office has to do is claim the phone is still needed for investigatory reasons and applicants/owners are out of luck. This can be appealed.

    Not "this can be appealed". This should be appealed. The DA has no hold over the phone itself. The phone is just a drawer that data sits in. They have a hold on the data from the phone. The DA should be compelled to put up or shut up: retain the contents, release the phone immediately, destroy the data when the case closes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 18 Mar 2021 @ 2:28pm

    A bit of math

    $10.9 billion / 36,000 officers = almost $303,000 per officer

    $10.9 billion / (36,000 officers + 19,000 other employees) = almost $260,000 per employee

    Data from here.

    Wow. You get paid the big $$$ to kill, maim, assault and rob people, with little to no chance of experiencing any consequences. The thug life doesn't get much better than that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:29pm

    Ah robbery at badgepoint

    Police take your property and it's on you to put the time and effort into getting it back. Truly a fine refutation of the idea that US police are no better(and in fact are much worse) than any other criminal organization.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Amicus Techdirtius: An Objective Economist, 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:29pm

    A bit more math: policing on the most cost-effective basis:

    Since you choose to look at only economic costs, I'll point up available benefits to alternate course.

    England in latter half of 19th century had around 270 death penalty offenses, besides deportation to Australia for lesser down to trivial, and it worked fine. Similarly, Imperial Rome did not coddle criminals. The principle is full proven even if offends modern wimps.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Amicus Techdirtius: An Objective Economist, 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:30pm

      Re: A bit more math: policing on the most cost-effective basis:

      Summary execution is far and away the most cost-effective practice. Should be first if not only choice above a certain level of confrontation, of course supported by fast trial and harsh punishments of mainly execution.

      1) Actual costs in likely worst case: 100 high power bullets, $200, and cremation at city expense of the corpse, $1000. (Other expenses like ambulance, coroner, morgue, washing blood off sidewalks, are essentially fixed or low.)

      2) Definitely saved are the expenses of trial (court time and staff / public defender), housing of criminal at $35,000 or so a year, and far greater though unknown savings the health of probable future victims, including hospital / long-term care, besides the inestimable value of innocent lives not being troubled by the few criminals.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Amicus Techdirtius: An Objective Economist, 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:30pm

      Re: A bit more math: policing on the most cost-effective basis:

      3) Swift justice -- or if you prefer high risk of injustice -- will definitely be of benefit in determent of other crimininals. Guaranteed, even if not quantifiable.

      4) A lower number of police will soon be possible, even over union objections. -- Not only that, but reduced training costs by avoiding complexities like gathering evidence on cell phones -- thereby neatly solving the topic problem too!

      Lowering costs of imprisoning and fewer police should particularly appeal to you: housing a criminal for one year is around sixth or so the cost of a police officer and utterly wasted.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2021 @ 7:34pm

      Re:

      England in latter half of 19th century had around 270 death penalty offenses, besides deportation to Australia for lesser down to trivial, and it worked fine. Similarly, Imperial Rome did not coddle criminals

      Ah, yes, you're claiming that the imperial British monarchy is a system that works - as in the same system you claim PaulT ascribes to and is inferior to what the US has in place? That system?

      Nice going, ignorant motherfucker.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 22 Mar 2021 @ 8:13am

      Re: A bit more math: policing on the most cost-effective basis:

      "England in latter half of 19th century had around 270 death penalty offenses, besides deportation to Australia for lesser down to trivial, and it worked fine."

      Except where it cost the british their empire and in particular that colony known as the New World where the heavy-handed redcoat and magistrate sparked the tinder keg for a revolution.

      "Similarly, Imperial Rome did not coddle criminals."

      Rome similarly practiced the concept of paterfamilias where the patrician of the household could legally kill or have killed his wife, children, or slaves for displeasing him.

      If all your arguments are backed by historical atrocity then that is perhaps in itself a good indication it wasn't well thought out in the first place.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:32pm

    But once it's considered evidence, the NYPD can hold onto it until its investigation concludes and any court proceedings are finished. This can take months or years.

    Or it could take forever, since we only "close" about 35% of any cases.

    "[T]he 21,660 unclaimed phones that New York City took from citizens last year will wind up being auctioned."

    I'm sure this happens with everything securely wiped to protect the information of the owner and anyone else represented in the phones' data. Right?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 18 Mar 2021 @ 3:37pm

    Private data on the phone?

    [T]he 21,660 unclaimed phones that New York City took from citizens last year will wind up being auctioned.

    Do they do anything to the phone to ensure that the private data of its real owner is not accessible by the new owners? The police are probably enabling identity theft. Perhaps someone who lost a phone could make a complaint about people conspiring to commit identity theft?

    I wonder what would happen if someone who lost their phone bypassed the bureaucracy and wrote to the police and DA's office demanding return of their phone. Then, when it is sold, it's not unclaimed, so auctioning the device may be theft?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 18 Mar 2021 @ 4:23pm

      Re: Private data on the phone?

      I wonder what would happen if someone who lost their phone bypassed the bureaucracy and wrote to the police and DA's office demanding return of their phone. Then, when it is sold, it's not unclaimed, so auctioning the device may be theft?

      Assuming they weren't just ignored I imagine they'd get a public tisk-tisking from the police and DA that if someone doesn't jump through the hoops then there's nothing the police can do, while in private those same police/DAs would have a hearty chuckle that one of the peons thinks that the police are bound by the laws.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 19 Mar 2021 @ 6:36am

    And what about all the data on those phones? Is the PD going to wipe them all?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      TRX, 20 Mar 2021 @ 9:21am

      Re:

      Of course not. That's just silly.

      Everyone knows phones spontaneously lose all their data and configuration settings when stored in an evidence room for more than seven days.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2021 @ 12:44am

    evidence

    if i remember right, there are rules for seizing phones as evidence.
    if your a suspect, the rules are not so strict. get arrested, phone is fair game.
    if your a witness/ victim, extenuating/exigent circumstances means there is the chance the data will be erased, destroyed or tampered with before permission or warrant can be obtained. most of the time stealing a phone this way is not needed. and taking a phone is not necessary except to prevent pictures/ videos of police misconduct getting released into the wild. which taking of the phone is illegal for that purpose.
    the only reason the blue lies mafia wants any and all phones is to create a data base and send it to the FUSION center. innocent, guilty or other, they don't care!

    no matter how the blue lies mafia gets a phone, they still need a warrant to get into it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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