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Letter: NYCLU Testifies On NYPD Search-Warrants

June 6, 2003 Peter F. Vallone, Jr. Chair, Public Safety Committee New York City Council Re: NYPD Search-Warrant Testimony Dear Chairman Vallone: I write to follow up my oral testimony on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union at the June 4, 2003, hearing of the Public Safety Committee. Because we expected our presentation to be based largely on the specific testimony of Commissioner Kelly, who was scheduled to testify immediately before us, we had not prepared written testimony in advance. Please accept this letter as a summary of the testimony that I delivered on Wednesday. Our testimony started with the observation that Commissioner Kelly’s testimony revealed important new factual information about the NYPD’s search-warrant practices. First, the Commissioner disclosed that between January 1, 2001 and April 30, 2003, the Department had executed 12,951 search warrants, of which the “vast majority” were “no knock” warrants. He also testified that 90% of the warrants “accomplished their purpose” in the sense that contraband was recovered as a result of execution of the search warrant. Finally, in response to a question from you, he stated that it was the responsibility of local precinct commanders to respond to complaints from residents who were the victims of mistaken warrants. In response to these disclosures and other information available to the NYCLU, we offered the following observations and recommendations:

  1. By the Department’s own calculations, as many as 10% of its warrants may be flawed, which means that in the last twenty-eight months as many as 1300 bad warrants may have been executed in the City. While we understand that the failure to find contraband does not alone establish that a warrant is a bad one, we are quite concerned that the Department can attest to the accuracy of only 90% of its warrants. Given how traumatic a police raid can be — particularly a “no knock” raid — it is imperative that the Department scrutinize its warrants to determine how many of its thousands of annual raids are flawed. This information must be reported to the Council and to the public.
  2. We remain very concerned about the Department’s heavy reliance on confidential informants. The May 30 report from the Department outlines a number of procedural reforms, but we believe the Department must reassess its overall strategy of relying on such informants.
  3. Commissioner Kelly’s disclosure that the “vast majority” of search warrants are no- knock warrants reveals that the Department may be indiscriminately using no-knock warrants. Given how traumatic no-knock raids can be and given controlling legal standards that provide that such warrants are only appropriate in unusual circumstances, we believe this disclosure requires the Council to examine this issue much more closely.
  4. Commissioner Kelly testified that new Department systems will capture considerable information about search-warrant practices. This is a useful step, but we believe that any such information cannot be allowed to remain in the Police Department. On several prior occasions the Department apparently was made aware of serious problems in its search-warrant practices, yet systemic reforms were not implemented. We therefore call on the City Council to enact legislation that would require the NYPD to report periodically to the Council and to the public complete information about its search-warrant practices and about implementation of reforms Commissioner Kelly has committed to undertake.
  5. We believe that the NYPD should create a special unit to investigate flawed search warrants and to respond to complaints from New York City residents about such search warrants. Leaving local precinct commanders to handle these matters, as suggested by Commissioner Kelly, is insufficient because those commanders may in part be responsible for the mistakes under investigation.
  6. The NYPD is not the only part of government responsible for the problems of flawed search warrants. We are concerned that local judges may have become too relaxed in granting NYPD requests for warrants (particularly “no knock” warrants) and may need to receive renewed training or direction in handling warrant requests. In addition we believe the Civilian Complaint Review Board has known for years of serious problems with search-warrant practices. It may be appropriate for the Public Safety Committee and the Council to inquire into these areas and to consider appropriate additional measures.

We thank you for affording us the opportunity to testify on these important issues, and we look forward to working with you and other Council members on these matters. Sincerely, Christopher Dunn c: Commissioner Raymond Kelly

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