In the Bronx (and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere) when your belongings are seized as "evidence," it can be impossible to ever get them back, even if you're never charged with a crime.
For starters, half of the clients on the Bronx Public Defenders' roster say they were never given an itemized receipt for their seized property. Then there's the fact that you need two pieces of ID to get your stuff back, and the ID in the wallet that the cops seized doesn't count.
But then you need a signed letter from the DA saying your stuff isn't evidence anymore. The Bronx DA doesn't give those out, generally speaking (nor does the DA's office explain why they won't send such a letter). The poorer you are, the less recourse you have, because the next step is to hire a lawyer -- not a public defender-- to go through a complex administrative process to challenge the ongoing retention of your seized property.
The most commonly seized items are wallets, cash and smartphones (when the cops seize your smartphone, you have to keep up payments on your plan, but you don't get to use it anymore). For self-evident reasons, depriving someone who's already poor of their smartphone, ID, and money is especially debilitating. For good measure, the cops also steal poor peoples' winter coats.
The Bronx Defenders have filed a class-action suit against New York City, alleging that there is a "policy, pattern, and practice" of abusive, unconstitutional conduct on the part of the city toward their client.
If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you're thinking of civil asset forfeiture, the process by which cops across America were able to steal pretty much anything and keep it for themselves or sell it to cover their departmental budget -- a practice that is now falling into disrepute and declining somewhat in the field.
As with civil forfeiture, this evidence scam can enrich police departments, because items that are not "claimed" (heh) are auctioned off.
All manner of other things get taken, too. James King, a staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, says his clients often want to get their winter coats back after an arrest. “Since they’re hiring us, they can’t afford attorneys,” King said. “These are people who are poor.” But the hunt to get their coat back sometimes takes so long that, even if it’s ultimately successful, winter has ended by the time the coat is returned.
In New York, a clock starts ticking the moment a criminal case is over, whether or not it resulted in a prison sentence: A property owner has 120 days to demand the return of their things before the NYPD has the right to dispose of the property, which can mean auctioning off a vehicle or sending seized cash to the city’s general fund. If they can’t demand the property back in person—perhaps because they’re behind bars—they must formally authorize an attorney, friend, or family member to do so.
(If the items are categorized as evidence, the property owner has another 270 days after making the original demand to secure the elusive district attorney’s release. If the items are slated for forfeiture, the owner also needs an additional release from the NYPD civil legal bureau.)
Police Can Use a Legal Grey Area to Rob Anyone of Their Belongings
[Kaveh Waddell/The Altantic]
(Image: 111117-A-BE343-008, Arctic Wolves, CC-BY)