The Bronx Defenders is a nonprofit group that provides legal and other services to low income citizens in the Bronx, New York. They filed a lawsuit against the City of New York (Encarnacion v. the City of New York) on January 8th, 2016. This federal class action lawsuit challenged the police practice of keeping personal property that they had been taking during arrests long after the conclusion of the criminal cases.
The lawsuit focused especially on property seizures by police that often included seizure of suspects’ wallets. In a Catch 22, those who were arrested could not apply for the return of their property because they had no ID.
Previous informal negotiations between the police and The Bronx Defenders went nowhere. When the lawsuit was filed, the police changed their tune and were willing to address needed reforms. This happened because the police would have had to turn over data and thousands of documents, give depositions, and withstand public scrutiny. With a settlement, however, they were not admitting any wrongdoing and were able to say that these changes were voluntary.
As part of the settlement of the lawsuit, the police have agreed to wide-ranging reforms. These include:
- The introduction of systems to assure that all arrestees will receive property vouchers specifying the property police seize at the time of arrest.
- The creation of a phone line that provides access to a designated prosecutor to find out the status of requests for release of property.
- The elimination of a policy that led to an unusually high number of property release denials on the grounds that the police were “considering” forfeiture.
- The creation of new written policies codifying these reforms, with obligations to implement through training, supervision, monitoring, and discipline to ensure compliance.
- The establishment of a working group of stakeholders to discuss any issues that arise, with a federal judge retaining jurisdiction of the case for two years to monitor compliance and enforcement of the agreement.
Johanna B. Steinberg, The Bronx Defenders’ General Counsel and Director of Impact Litigation, said “None of this could have happened without the Liberty Project’s support and partnership to challenge these injustices … This is a really big win.”