New Jersey has joined sixteen other states that are moving toward more transparency in the seizure of property in civil cases, especially if there is no conviction. Spearheaded by the Institute for Justice beginning in 2014, the End Forfeiture initiative was launched, which focuses on reforming or ending civil forfeiture laws nationwide.
Civil forfeiture allows cash, cars, homes, and other property suspected of involvement in criminal activity to be seized by the government. However, the property owner doesn’t have to be charged or convicted of a crime to lose that property permanently. Some say this gives law enforcement agencies an incentive to “police for profit,” seizing and keeping as much property as they can in order to fund these programs. This is where the Institute of Justice and the ACLU-NJ have stepped in.
“Civil forfeiture has an extremely high potential for abuse, and it’s nearly impossible to challenge–and yet it remains one of the most opaque practices in law enforcement. This law moves our state closer to curtailing and ultimately ending the use of civil forfeiture and the racially disparate over-policing it encourages, disproportionately occurring in communities that are already some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable,” said Sarah Fajardo, Policy Director at ACLU-NJ.
Long used as a way to fund community programs and equipment improvements used by law enforcement, the sources of this money have been unclear in many cases. This has fueled concerns about abuse of the system and especially how it impacts minorities and low-income residents. Eight of the cities in New Jersey with the highest rate of seizures, for example, were among the poorest in the state and were in heavily-policed, low-income communities of color, including Jersey City, Newark, Trenton, and Paterson.
And the amount of money is significant. In 2018, the ACLU-NJ found that law enforcement had seized $5.5 million between January and May 2016. Broken down, this means about $37,000 per day. The IJ combed through public records and reported that prosecutors at the county level had raked in about $72.6 million in a four year period between 2009 and 2013. So, the stakes are high in this tension between the seizure of property and how it is used by the agencies confiscating it.
NJ Assemblywoman Angela McKnight said during her sponsorship of the measure to bring transparency to this process, “As of right now, New Jersey has no reporting requirements for law enforcement agencies regarding property seizures, which has resulted in lacking transparency and protections for property owners.”
Now, under NJ S1963, state authorities will have to account for how much money and property are seized from citizens and why. More specifically, the law enforcement agency that seized the assets will have to be identified, along with exactly what was confiscated, the crime associated with the property, and whether the person was convicted of a crime.
This issue has bipartisan support, with both parties at the national level endorsing it. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that most Americans oppose widespread forfeiture process.
Citizens who have property seized may need to consult with an attorney to determine whether their situation falls under the new law or if they have any options for the return of their property. Contact us today for a consultation with a civil asset forfeiture attorney.