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vehicle must be released

On February 16, 2004, respondent BT was arrested in the vicinity of 118th Street and Second Avenue as he exited his 2000 Lexus. He was charged with criminal felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, felony possession of more than 16 ounces of marijuana, and misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The drugs were found in respondent’s car, which was seized and vouchered at the time of arrest and is the subject of a civil forfeiture proceeding. Respondent thereafter filed a timely demand with petitioner for a hearing which was held on March 8, 2004. No guns or drugs were found.

In support of its application to retain possession of respondent’s vehicle pending forfeiture, petitioner submitted respondent’s arrest report which stated he was “in possession” of marijuana and other controlled substances. It also submitted the Criminal Court complaint which stated that the arresting officer observed respondent in the vehicle in question and that the marijuana and other controlled substances were recovered from that vehicle. Documents demonstrating the value of the vehicle, respondent’s ownership thereof, and respondent’s prior criminal record were also submitted at the hearing.

Respondent testified at the hearing that at the time of his arrest, his vehicle was parked and he was arrested after he exited his vehicle.

With respect to the issue of probable cause for respondent’s arrest, petitioner argued that probable cause existed because the marijuana and other drugs were recovered from the vehicle. When the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) presiding at the hearing inquired about the arresting officer’s observations leading to the initial stop of respondent, petitioner argued that the issue of whether there was reasonable suspicion for the initial stop was beyond the scope of the hearing. The ALJ disagreed, holding that if the initial stop was invalid, the subsequent arrest and seizure were also invalid, despite the quality of the evidence recovered as a result of the illegal stop. He concluded that since there was no indication of the factual basis for the initial stop of respondent by the arresting officer, the vehicle must be released. Robbery and petit larceny were not in the picture.

Petitioner thereafter brought another proceeding, arguing that the ALJ acted beyond his jurisdiction in requiring proof of the propriety of the initial stop. The IAS court determined that the ALJ was correct in his analysis that the initial stop must be valid to sustain the subsequent seizure, and denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding.

Administrative Code of the City of New York provides that all property suspected of having been used as a means of committing crime or employed in aid or furtherance of crime shall be given into the custody of and kept by the property clerk. A person who uses property in aid of a crime shall not be considered the lawful claimant entitled to that property.

While the issues of whether there was reasonable suspicion for the initial stop of respondent and whether there was probable cause for his arrest require separate inquiries, the issues are interconnected in forfeiture cases since if a seizure lacked probable cause, and the City could offer no untainted postseizure evidence to justify further retention, the claimant’s vehicle would ordinarily have to be released during the pendency of proceedings.

Admittedly, there was no showing at the hearing that there was reasonable suspicion for the initial stop. As a result, petitioner was not able to offer untainted post-seizure evidence to justify further retention.

The ALJ in this case did not exceed the scope of the hearing and his jurisdiction by requiring a showing of reasonable suspicion. Such a showing is the first step in any inquiry into the validity of a seizure.

This inquiry does not require a full evidentiary hearing. We do not envision the retention hearing as a forum for exhaustive evidentiary battles that might threaten to duplicate the eventual forfeiture hearing. Inasmuch as the purpose of the hearing is the limited one of determining whether the vehicle should be returned to its owner during the pendency of proceedings, due process should be satisfied by an initial testing of the merits of the City’s case.

The Court therefore concluded that the IAS court’s determination was correct and should be affirmed.

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