Public rails against forfeiture

Republicans are wavering in their support for controversial law


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  • Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler (left) gestures to asset forfeiture law opponent Neil Meyer (right), of Wallkill, during a hearing on the proposed law in the conference room of County Executive Steve Neuhaus in Goshen on Monday. Photo by Nathan Mayberg



What they said

Gregg Merksamer of Warwick said the law would give a "dangerous incentive" to law enforcement to act as "profiteers." He called the proposal "the most dangerous law" the county has seen and cited documented cases of how forfeiture laws have been used by some police to take people's money during ordinary traffic stops.
Paul Koksvik, a member of the city of Newburgh Republican Committee, said the law could lead to the government going after bank accounts and homes.
Tom Kemnitz, chair of the town of Monroe Democratic Party, said his organization voted unanimously in November to oppose the law. "This is a group that is unanimous about nothing," he said.
Chip Murray of Warwick called on Neuhaus to "stop a bad idea." New York has had "the most stringent drug laws in the country," known as the Rockefeller drug laws, which Murray said didn't slow drug use. The war on drugs has been "a failure," he said.
Thomas Bufamonte of Middletown called the law "big government at its worst," and predicted it would fail a public referendum.
Eric Weissman of Goshen — "The law is for justice. Not a moneymaking enterprise."
Aimee Fitzgerald of Central Valley — The law is a "money grubbing assault on due process" and "highway robbery."


By Nathan Mayberg

— Dozens of speakers thundered against the proposed asset forfeiture law at two public hearings held Monday by Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus.

The law would allow the District Attorney's Office to seize cash, cars and other property tied to misdemeanor drug crimes. Just one speaker spoke in favor of the law: District Attorney David Hoovler, who proposed it.

One Republican who voted in favor of the law signaled this week that he changed his mind.

"If the county executive vetoed it, I would be supportive of that," said Legislator Paul Ruszkiewicz (R-Pine Island). "If there is that much opposition to it, it probably isn't worth it."

Ruszkiewicz said Hoovler already uses a state forfeiture law for felony cases.

Neuhaus said he'll decide on Friday whether to sign the law, which passed the legislature on Dec.4 in a party-line vote with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.

On Monday, speakers said the law would encroach on their constitutional rights against unwarranted search and seizure and due process. Many challenged the part of the law that allows forfeiture to begin before conviction.

Defense attorney Michael Sussman said the law was unconstitutional and set penalties for criminal acts beyond the county's rights. He called the law "an insult to due process and nothing more than a money-making gimmick which diminishes our liberty."

He has threatened to sue the county over the law, saying it would "put significant pressure on people to plead guilty to crimes they have not committed."

Family car on the line

Speakers worried the law could hurt families. Young people driving their parents' cars could lose them if a passenger was found with drugs, they said.

"Kids under 22 exhibit poor judgment" that could cost them the family car, said Dawn Hoagland of Woodbury. She said it was "not wise" to create a "monetary incentive" for policing.

Richard Collins of Wallkill said his son might drive home an intoxicated friend but lose the family car for "doing the right thing" if the passenger had drugs.

"If you have a child, you don't know what they are doing every moment of the day," said Frances Meyer of Wallkill.

Meyer said forfeiture laws were supposed to go after drug cartels. She cited national cases in which police use forfeiture laws to take cash during traffic stops. "That's not American," she said.

In the morning's public hearing, Hoovler said "Nobody in this room has to worry about forfeiture," eliciting a flurry of responses.

He then said: "If you think your going to get caught up in the law, maybe you should come upstairs and tell us who you are," Hoovler said to the crowd.

"That's insulting," yelled one woman.

Hoovler said, "I'm not here to say it's a perfect law. Can it be abused? Absolutely. It makes sense to at least give it a try."

Aimee Fitzgerald, of Central Valley, said at the evening hearing that with "the stroke of a pen you will turn police into entrepreneurs on a road to disaster."

More money for services

A Newburgh man noted the law allows the DA to pursue forfeiture against non-criminal defendants who receive property that is tied to somebody in a misdemeanor drug case.

"I live in a place where the economy is built on people selling (property) short," he said.

Hoovler said there have been approximately 100 felony forfeiture cases in 2014, and defendants signed off on all of them. Most of the forfeitures have been of cash, while a few have been for cars, he said.

Under the law, a defendant could request a civil hearing, but the DA's standard of proof would be less than a criminal case.

Hoovler characterized the law as a way to bring more revenue to the county by seeking forfeiture under misdemeanor drug charges added to felonies. In a subsequent interview, Hoovler said he would still have the ability to seek forfeiture in strictly misdemeanor cases. Originally, Hoovler had proposed extending forfeiture to all misdemeanor cases.

Hoovler said the law could be used to help update old equipment in his office and aid services such as rape crisis and domestic violence.

"Rape crisis doesn't get that money if we don't get forfeiture," Hoovler said. "Police don't get training if we don't get forfeiture."

But Neuhaus said the forfeiture law should not be used as a revenue generator.

"It's not the way to make money to take advantage of people," he said. "I would give the District Attorney equipment if he needs it."

Neuhaus said he's received a lot of phone calls objecting to the law, and that some Republicans who supported it are having second thoughts.

A lot of people are concerned about their civil liberties and the law being abused, Neuhaus said. "That's a problem," he said.

Tony Hilinski of New Windsor said if his family car was taken from him due to a mishap involving his son, it would "be the county executive's job to drive my son to work."

Reporter Nathan Mayberg can be reached at comm.reporter@strausnews.com or by calling 845-469-9000 ext. 359.




How cars could be lost

Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler has said the forfeiture law would allow him discretion to have vehicles seized and forfeited to the county in misdemeanor drug cases regardless of their value. However, his assistants have said that cars can be seized if their value does not exceed the value of the drugs found or money tied to their sale.
Section 3 of the proposed law states: "A civil action may be commenced in court by the District Attorney against a criminal defendant to recover the property which constitutes the proceeds of a crime, the substituted proceeds of a crime, or an instrumentality of a crime, or to recover a money judgment in an amount equivalent in value to the property which constitutes the proceeds of a crime, the substituted proceeds of a crime, or an instrumentality of a crime."
Hoovler said "a few" cars have been forfeited to the county this year. In a case chronicled in Warwick, a family lost their car for four months after police seized the vehicle under the pretense that the car was evidence in a burglary case and the District Attorney's Office may seek to have the car forfeited. Hoovler's office said they never sought to have the car forfeited, the burglary charges were reduced to criminal trespass and the car was returned in December.




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