Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.
Marventz Sulfradin didn’t know his date had a gun until police began pulling them over after they bought chicken nuggets and fries from a Brooklyn McDonald’s drive-thru in November.
When the cops flashed their lights, the date, who was driving, pulled the firearm from his jacket, plopped it in Sulfradin’s lap and told him to hide it.
“I started freaking out when I knew there was a gun in the car,” said Sulfradin, who reflexively tossed the weapon onto the passenger’s side floorboard.
Police, who’d pulled over the car for tinted windows, found the weapon inside Sulfradin’s red 2019 Honda Accord Sport. They arrested both men, who had met a day earlier on the online dating app Grindr, and seized Sulfradin’s car and iPhone.
That marked the beginning of what Sufradin calls a “nightmare,” involving months of efforts, still ongoing, to retrieve his property.
“That was my first time getting arrested, first time being in jail,” said Sulfradin, who’s 23, lives in Toronto and occasionally visits his grandmother in Brooklyn. “I’m still scared of the cops.”
The NYPD is supposed to account publicly for seizures of private property, under a 2017 law that requires precinct-by-precinct annual reports about cars, cash and other items that police routinely confiscate from people being arrested.
That also includes people like Sulfradin who were never charged with a crime but whose property may be removed as evidence. In other cases, judges can order property forfeited after the NYPD alleges it was used to commit a crime.
This week, the NYPD blew past a March 1 deadline for the first of its detailed annual reports without producing any information. The department previously missed a July 2019 deadline for an initial report covering the first half of last year.
“Compliance with the law is not a matter of discretion. It’s a matter of obligation,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx), who was the bill’s prime sponsor.
“I’m not gonna stand by idly while a city agency willfully fails to follow the law,” he added, vowing the City Council would call a hearing to compel the NYPD to disclose the information.
Sgt. Mary O’Donnell, a police spokesperson, said on Monday the data “is not available.”
O’Donnell, stating the NYPD is “pretty transparent,” added that police would upload the statistics online when they have them. “I don’t know what’s the delay,” she said.
Torres argues that shining a light on civil forfeitures and other property seizures by police will help counter what he calls “a perverse incentive to seize and sell the property of New Yorkers who have never been convicted of a crime” in order to raise revenue.
Limited reports produced previously under the law show about $467,000 generated through the auction of 5,759 vehicles, and $357,000 made through the sale of other items in 2018.
But the NYPD says its Property and Evidence Tracking System, or PETS, doesn’t have the capacity to generate the much more granular precinct-level reports Torres’ law required beginning last July.
Robert Messner, a NYPD Civil Enforcement Unit official, told the City Council when the bill was first proposed that PETS “was not designed to run the type of large searches and reports that would be required.”
Messner, in testimony before the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said that attempting to retrieve the data would “lead to system crashes and significant delays during the intake and release process in each command utilizing PETS citywide.”
He added: “In effect, the only way the Department could possibly comply with the bill would be a manual count of over a half a million invoices each year.”
City lawyers made the same argument in defending a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by Bronx Defenders seeking details about NYPD policies and procedures for seizing property.
The Police Department ultimately agreed to turn over much of the information sought, after an affidavit from a retired veteran city IT employee said that the necessary data could be extracted.
PETS, launched in 2012, does print out vouchers to be used for claiming removed property later.
But New Yorkers often have a hard time getting their stuff back from law enforcement, noted Adam Shoop of the Bronx Defenders. Many, he added, simply give up trying to retrieve their property — at which point it may get sold as “unclaimed.”
“It’s one of the more pernicious civil consequences that results from an arrest,” said Shoop.
As a result of a lawsuit filed, the NYPD disclosed it had generated more than $6 million in revenue from seizures in 2013.
A separate Bronx Defenders class-action lawsuit spurred reforms in the seizure process, including ensuring people receive vouchers for their property.
Property seizures can have a major impact on people’s lives, said Emily Ponder Williams of the Neighborhood Defense Services of Harlem.
“Even a couple of days without that cash can mean that the person is unable to pay rent or buy food,” Williams said. “They really result in the destabilization of our clients and some of the city’s most vulnerable people.”
The NYPD has been inconsistent in doling out vouchers to people, three attorneys told THE CITY.
Sulfradin did get a voucher for his iPhone — but a police officer inadvertently put the item under the name of Sulfradin’s gun-toting date, according to Bill Bryan of Brooklyn Defenders.
“It is difficult for us to resolve this type of issue,” Bryan said.
Sulfradin still hasn’t recovered his phone — even as he makes monthly installment payments.
He rented a car from November until about a week ago, when he retrieved his Honda from the NYPD, with the aid of the Brooklyn Defenders.
When he did get his ride back, it was scratched and wouldn’t start, said Sulfradin, who added he paid about $5,000 to get the vehicle fixed. He said he intends to file a damages claim against the city.
Meanwhile, he’s newly cautious about whom he lets into his Honda.
“Just don’t trust anybody on a website, on a dating website, because you never know what you’re going to be dealing with,” he said.
Sulfradin said now he searches everybody before they step in his car.
“I’m gonna be like, ‘You don’t have nothing illegal?’” he said. “I don’t want to be dealing with that stress again.”
CORRECTION (March 3, 2020, 1 p.m): An earlier version of this article left off the last name of Emily Ponder Williams, and misattributed a voucher statistic to her that had come from the Brooklyn Defenders.
Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.
SUPPORT THE CITY
You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.
We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.
Please consider joining us as a member today.