Nassau police arrested hundreds of drivers of color on a technicality. After an investigation, the DA is changing its policy
The Nassau District Attorney’s Office is reversing course after an investigation by WSHU, in collaboration with WNYC/Gothamist, found that police in Nassau County were arresting mostly Black and Latino drivers on felony charges that, in other parts of New York, amount to nothing more than a traffic violation.
Over the past 12 months, the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) has arrested 739 people for what’s known as “criminal possession of a forged instrument” — a D-class felony that typically involved forged checks and fake IDs, but is now predominantly being used in Nassau to charge drivers who improperly use a temporary license plate on their vehicle. These temporary plates have become more common since the pandemic first caused Department of Motor Vehicle offices to close. Neighboring jurisdictions, however, typically issue tickets instead of making arrests.
In Nassau County, 80% of those arrested on forged instrument charges were either Black or Latino.
NCPD did not respond to multiple email and phone messages requesting comment on its policy of arresting drivers. Police have so far refused to provide a written copy of its policy regarding these arrests, nor did it comply with a freedom of information request.
After WSHU and WNYC/Gothamist submitted questions to the Nassau County District Attorney’s office earlier this month, Acting District Attorney Joyce Smith ordered a review of the county’s forged instrument cases. In an internal policy change issued last week, the DA’s office said that, in most circumstances, it would no longer prosecute people on felony charges for the infraction and that drivers will instead be issued tickets.
The DA’s office declined interview requests. In written statements, Brendan Brosh, a spokesperson for the agency, said, “this is a relatively recent offense, which has increased greatly during the pandemic. As with any new criminal activity, we have to use due diligence and fair practice in our mode of prosecution.”
Court records show that nearly everyone arrested on the charge is released the next morning after spending the night in jail and having their car impounded. According to data collected by New York’s Office of Court Administration, 44% of defendants over the past year had their cases dismissed and sealed, while more than half, often those with prior criminal records, pleaded guilty to lesser crimes such as disorderly conduct in order to avoid returning to court.
Several of the defendants interviewed by WSHU claimed they didn’t know the temporary plates on their vehicles were illegal, and court records show many of the defendants told police before being arrested that they received the temporary plates from dealers in New York.
But the Nassau County DA’s office claimed the issue extends beyond temporary plates improperly issued by dealers.
“We have prosecuted many temp tag cases that involve forged instruments where the tags have been actually altered, photocopied or information contained on the tag is fictional,” Brosch told WSHU and WNYC/Gothamist.
The office did not provide an estimate of how many temporary license plates were altered as opposed to used improperly. Court records show only a handful of possible cases and WSHU was not able to interview any such defendants.
The Nassau DA’s office was also unable to identify a single prosecution against sellers of illicit temporary plates, either forged or improperly used.
“Many of the sellers who have issued the license plates that were the subject of Nassau cases are located outside of our jurisdiction,” Brosh wrote in an email.
However, according to several felony complaints signed by Nassau police officers and used by Nassau assistant district attorneys, defendants told police they’d purchased the temporary plates from car dealers or middlemen in Nassau County.
Temporary, or “in-transit” plates, are typically used by car dealers to buy cars in one state and transfer them to another state. Several states issue these plates online with little oversight. Using them on vehicles that have not been transferred from other states to New York is against state law.
Investigators with the state Department of Motor Vehicles said they first noticed a large increase of improper temporary plates during the pandemic when car usage surged and DMV offices were closed.
“This also generated a little mini market of individuals taking advantage of this,” Owen McShane, a DMV field investigator, said in an interview. “They identified the states that would allow them to issue these permits. Initially, we saw a lot with Texas and New Jersey.”
According to Mcshane, sellers set up fake dealerships in those states and sold temporary plates through Craigslist and Facebook. He said the NYPD conducts “buys-and-busts” against sellers and Albany County arrested one person in June.
However, McShane said most of the enforcement is against drivers.
“Most of the vehicles got ticketed and towed,” he said. “When we did it in Albany, it was over a hundred vehicles the first night and over hundred vehicles the second night.”
Nassau’s aggressive enforcement
Nassau is unique in its aggressive enforcement of improper temporary plates against drivers. At 739 arrests between November 2020 and October 2021, it’s the fourth most common charge brought by the Nassau County Police Department. Comparatively, NYPD charged 166 people with this crime during the same time period. Suffolk County charged 43 people.
Forged instrument is the most common charge against Black people in Nassau, and accounts for 18% of all Black people arrested.
When the surge of temporary plates first started, police in Garden City, also in Nassau County, began arresting drivers, similar to NCPD. However, the department reversed course in March 2021 when it became clear drivers were unaware they were committing a crime.
According to interviews conducted outside district court in Hempstead, many of those arrested by NCPD said they had no idea they were using improperly issued license plates. Many said they bought the temporary plates with their vehicles.
“When I bought my car — it was a used dealership car — I bought it from them,” Aaron Wilson said in an interview after he was released from jail in Hempstead. “It was mailed to me. And I went to FedEx to get it laminated, and I got a frame.”
Others said they knowingly purchased temporary plates and used them illegally because they couldn’t afford the DMV fees or the fines for previous tickets.
“I have to pay for some tickets. I have to pay for new registration, then I also have to pay a fee, and also wait a year to be registered,” said Shanell Stoves, who’d also spent the night in jail.
Salomon Noboa, a recent immigrant from Ecuador, said he’d purchased temporary plates from a seller on Facebook believing they were real, unaware of how auto registration works in the United States.
“I just found out the plate was fake,” he said in Spanish. “I thought it was good because they told me it was good.”
Noboa said he now regrets buying the plates, but added that many of his friends use them.
The cost of being arrested
The charges against Noboa were eventually dismissed and sealed, but his car was still impounded and he had to pay $500 to get it back. Tow companies contracted by NCPD typically charge a fee of $150 plus storage costs of between $25-50 per day.
Aaron Wilson had to borrow money from family in order to get his car returned. Others interviewed have still not been able to afford to get their vehicles back.
Those who decided to plead guilty to lesser charges are required to pay court fees and surcharges, an average of $266 according to court data.
Nassau’s DA office said about half of all arrests resulted in non-criminal dispositions. But advocates for criminal justice reform say those lesser charges also come with a cost.
“I think what the Nassau DA’s office might be saying is, ‘Look, we're basically dismissing these cases.’ Well, that's not true,” said Scott Hechinger, a former public defender who now runs Zealous, a nonprofit with the goal of ending mass criminalization.
“If you're looking for work, good luck getting a job,” he said. “If you're trying to get a job, you're trying to get housing. If you're applying for immigration status, that is on your record.”