GOSHEN — Packed into a hot, crowded conference room for a public hearing on Monday, almost two dozen speakers denounced a proposed Orange County law that would allow authorities to keep cash and other assets involved in misdemeanor drug cases once the defendant has been convicted or pleads guilty.
County Executive Steve Neuhaus held the mandatory hearing before deciding by Friday whether to sign or veto the proposal, which the Legislature passed in a 12-9 vote on Dec. 4, with all Republicans in support and all Democrats in opposition. Around 75 people squeezed into a meeting room on Matthews Street for back-to-back hearings on that law and another that would allow the county to sell its Government Center. The hearings generated so much interest between them that Neuhaus also scheduled sessions at 6 p.m. Monday in a larger venue.
Despite the party-line vote, the asset-forfeiture law has provoked fierce objections from both ends of the political spectrum. District Attorney David Hoovler, who brought the proposal to the Legislature, has argued that county prosecutors would apply it the same way they already use an existing state law to seize crime-related assets in felony cases, except that part of the proceeds would be distributed differently. Under the county law, roughly one third of the money would go to Orange County instead of to the state agency that funds drug and alcohol-treatment programs.
Opponents who spoke Monday raised arguments similar to those made before the Dec. 4 vote. They contended asset-forfeiture laws unfairly target the poor and minorities, deny constitutional due-process rights, are ripe for abuse and put police in the unfair role of revenue collectors.
“There has to be other ways for the county to make money,” argued John Momrow of Goshen. “It’s going to hurt a lot of innocent people, and people who can’t afford to protect themselves.”
Hoovler, speaking at the hearing, vigorously defended the law, saying the New York statute that it mirrors is already applied in Orange County with none of the abuses that opponents have cited from other states. He also pointed out that asset seizures are rare — about 100 of 22,000 criminal cases last year — and occur only at the conclusion of the case, through an agreement signed by the defendant and his or her attorney and approved by a judge.
If signed, the law would require Hoovler’s office to report to the Legislature twice a year on how it was used, and it would expire in 18 months unless lawmakers renew it.