The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution guards American citizens against illegal search and seizure of property. But when a law enforcement official does initially have reasonable cause, what happens to the property (including cash) after it is determined no crime was committed after all?
This is at the heart of the issue with civil asset forfeiture. And it is being addressed in many states, including New Jersey. As this blog recently covered, in January 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation (S1963) requiring disclosure and transparency requirements for civil asset forfeiture. New Jersey joins a number of states that have moved in this direction at the request of several citizens’ watchdog groups, including the ACLU-NJ and Americans for Prosperity and the AFP Foundation.
Brought to the NJ legislature by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, the bill was supported by Assemblymen Jay Webber and Erik Peterson.
“It’s un-American to take people’s property under the premise that it was gained through criminal activity when a person has not been convicted of a crime,” said Assemblyman Peterson.
S1963 would require county prosecutors to submit quarterly reports to the Attorney General. These reports would outline in detail all the seizure and forfeiture activities within their specific county. This reporting would also have to give a confiscation date, which law enforcement agency was involved, a description of the property or a total of the cash taken, the alleged criminal activity associated with the seizure, and whether the defendant was charged with a crime and how that case ended. If an agency did not report, they would be required to return seized property or proceeds resulting from forfeited property, no matter the circumstances.
The stakes for law enforcement agencies are high. A great deal of money that now funds community programs as well as equipment for their own agencies is taken in through civil asset forfeiture. The property is auctioned off and added to the cash taken, and this money is used to fund the programs and equipment. In itself, no one questions the worth of these programs. What is in question is a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement officials.
Assemblywoman McKnight said, “With this law the people of New Jersey and our state officials will finally have access to much-needed data concerning which agencies are profiting from property seizures, what is being taken, and how the proceeds are being used.”
Assemblyman Peterson agreed. “When homes, cars, money, and other property worth millions of dollars are seized every year, there must be adequate controls in place to prevent abuses. There’s no uniform seizure policy across the state making the reporting in this bill necessary. It shines a light on who is taking assets and ensures the money is used to benefit taxpayers.”
Another issue with the current situation in New Jersey is that the highest rate of forfeiture comes from some of the economically poorest counties in the state. Many citizens don’t have the resources to fight to get their cash and property back. This concerns ACLU-NJ Policy Director Sarah Fajardo.
“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. We applaud Gov. Murphy for signing this law, and we commend the Legislature for passing it,” said Fajardo.
If your property is wrongfully taken through civil asset forfeiture, you deserve legal representation to help you reclaim what is yours. Contact Brian Silber, a successful civil asset forfeiture attorney, today for a free consultation.