In just five months in 2016, police in New Jersey seized over $5.5 million in cash and property from individuals using civil asset forfeiture. This is according to a report published by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. The report also found that there is almost no oversight on civil forfeiture in the state.
The seizures included houses, electronics, clothes, a massage table, and baseball cards, not to mention the hundreds of vehicles also taken. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process where law enforcement is allowed to take the property of citizens if that property is suspected of being involved in a crime, and in most states, a criminal conviction is not required for property to be taken.
In New Jersey, law enforcement gets to keep 100% of the proceeds from these forfeitures. If the state attorney general’s office brings a case of civil asset forfeiture, it keeps 95% of the money. The remaining 5% is deposited in the state’s Hepatitis Inoculation Fund. Law enforcement agencies use the proceeds of forfeitures to fund their operations, including buying essential equipment.
In criminal cases, the standard of proof is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In civil asset forfeiture, however, that standard of proof is considerably lower, requiring prosecutors to show the property’s link to a crime with only “a preponderance of the evidence.”
According to Liza Weisberg, an attorney at ACLU-NJ, “That incentivizes them [law enforcement] to take as much as possible, especially from folks who are least able to fight back.”
To get property back, property owners have to take the government to court. In many instances, people don’t challenge the seizure in court and therefore lose their property by default.
“It’s not because they don’t have winning cases,” explained Weisberg. The ACLU found that 97 percent of the time people did not challenge the seizures in court. This is the case even if they were not charged with a crime. “It’s because, in virtually every single case, the value of the thing that the police officers took away is usually less than the cost of getting into the courtroom to try to get it back.”
According to the report, people of color and areas of low income are disproportionately affected when it comes to civil forfeiture. “Black people,” according to the ACLU’s analysis, “were arrested for low-level offenses at a rate 9.6 times higher than that of white people.” As well as it being more likely that their property will be taken, people in low-income communities are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer to get their property back. Unlike in criminal cases, there is no right to counsel in a civil case.
Local law enforcement agencies are required to report their seizures to the attorney general. This information, however, is not made published.
“No government agency—not even one as honorable and vital to civil society as law enforcement—should be able to generate revenue through the forcible seizure of property in near total secrecy,” said Jason Sneed of the Heritage Foundation.
Chris Christie, the outgoing governor, vetoed a measure requiring greater transparency in civil asset forfeitures. This would “hamper ongoing law enforcement operations,” he said.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.