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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  1. 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.

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