Holyoke returns $25K in bail money to settle woman’s lawsuit

  • Holyoke police cars GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/17/2021 9:19:10 AM

HOLYOKE — The city of Holyoke has returned nearly $25,000 to a woman who alleged several city police officers had taken it from her in 2019.

In a lawsuit filed Oct. 8, city resident Natasha Custodio alleged that in 2019, three Holyoke police officers — William Delgado, Jabet Lopez and another unknown officer — violated her civil rights when they threatened her with arrest if she didn’t give them $24,850 in bail money she had just received back from Hampden Superior Court. Former police chief Manuel Febo and the city of Holyoke were also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Less than two months after Custodio filed her lawsuit, Holyoke’s legal department agreed to allow judgment against the city in the case. The city offered to pay Custodio $26,000 in damages, which Custodio accepted.

In her lawsuit, Custodio said that she received the $24,850 check from Hampden Superior Court in January 2019. The money was surety for a man who was released on bail in May 2018 while he faced cocaine trafficking charges but then had his bail revoked after more charges were brought against him.

After getting the funds from the court clerk’s office, Custodio said she went to her bank and deposited the funds. When she arrived back home, Custodio said the police officers confronted her, saying the money “belonged to the case” against the criminal defendant, Arthur James Estabrook.

“The Officers threatened the Plaintiff that if she did not immediately provide them with the Funds, they would arrest her and she would be held in custody and prosecuted,” Custodio’s lawsuit alleged. “The Plaintiff, in response to these threats, and not believing she had any choice in the matter, agreed to provide the Funds to the Officers.”

Custodio alleged that the officers escorted her back to the bank and told her to withdraw cash and give it to them. When the bank denied her request to withdraw the money in cash, Custodio alleged that the officers demanded that she ask the bank to return the check and that she endorse the check to the Holyoke Police Department.

Despite Holyoke officers saying the money “belonged to the case,” court records show that in Estabrook’s case, neither Custodio’s name nor the $24,850 appear in any of the three filings the Hampden County district attorney’s office made for “civil asset forfeiture” — the practice by which law enforcement agencies can seize property from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime if they think that property is connected to a crime.

The legal bar that law enforcement agencies have to clear to support the seizure of property is lower in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country. The state relaxed its rules in 1989 to allow a “probable cause” standard for civil asset forfeiture — the lowest burden of proof possible. Massachusetts is now the only state that hasn’t raised that standard of proof in the years since.

Earlier this year, an investigation by the radio station WBUR and the news outlet ProPublica found that in Worcester County, 24% of the hundreds of forfeitures filed there in 2018 had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal drug case filing.

With Custodio, however, prosecutors never filed for asset forfeiture against her or the $24,850 in question. Holyoke police took the money, only to return it shortly after Custodio sued.

“While I appreciate that the city solicitor’s office recognized that there was no defense to the officers’ actions and made an offer of judgment soon after we filed the complaint, it is disheartening that it took two years and a lawsuit for Ms. Custodio to finally get her money back after this illegal ‘shakedown,’” Custodio’s lawyer, Lauren Olanoff, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Hampden DA’s office declined to answer questions Wednesday. So too did the mayor’s office. Holyoke Police Chief David Pratt and Capt. Matthew Moriarty, who handles communications for the department, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It is unclear what happened to Custodio’s money after she handed it over to police. A copy of the $24,850 check, with the words “pay to the order of Holyoke Police Department” written on the back, is attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit. The lawsuit states that around Jan. 30, 2019, the check was cashed and the funds “deposited into an account owned by the defendant City of Holyoke.”

Tanya Wdowiak, the city’s auditor, referred the Gazette’s questions to the city’s legal department, which did not respond to a voicemail left Wednesday.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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