Civil Liberties

Big Brother Takes the T-Bird Away


The name of the case says a lot: State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird. Ostensibly, this was not an action against Carol Thomas, the car's owner. Nor was it an attempt to punish her son, who borrowed the car when he was 17 and used it, without her knowledge, to sell marijuana. Rather, the state accused the Thunderbird itself of facilitating a crime, so it did not matter that the car's owner was innocent or that the pot seller had already pleaded gulty, paid a fine, and served a term of home confinement.

Welcome to the wacky world of civil forfeiture, in which inanimate objects are charged with offenses and the government makes money by targeting assets instead of criminals. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the general practice, which has a long (indeed, medieval) pedigree. But the Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm representing Carol Thomas in a state lawsuit scheduled for oral argument today, is trying a new approach: It argues that New Jersey's civil forfeiture provisions violate the right to due process because the proceeds go to police and prosecutors, creating an unconstitutional bias that interferes with the administration of justice.

From 1998 to 2000, civil forfeiture brought nearly $32 million into the coffers of New Jersey police and prosecutors, paying for overtime, new cars, office furniture, a golf outing, and travel expenses for conventions, among other things. On average, the money represented about 30 percent of the discretionary funds available to county prosecutors. The Institute for Justice argues that "prosecutors and police officers face an irresistible temptation to turn away from the fair and impartial administration of justice toward the pursuit of property and profit."

New Jersey's license to steal is especially tempting because it covers a wide variety of offenses, not just drug crimes (the focus of federal forfeitures) or drunk driving (targeted by a forfeiture program that Rudolph Giuliani started in New York City). As the Institute for Justice notes, "any criminal activity in New Jersey, except unindictable and minor crimes like disorderly person offenses, can lead to a civil forfeiture proceeding."

Last year the judge hearing Thomas' case, G. Thomas Bowen of Salem County, ordered the state to return the title to her Thunderbird and allowed her to pursue her broader argument against the law on behalf of people in similar situations. "I've won my case," said Thomas, a former police officer who left the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department to focus on her forfeiture fight. "Now I want to make sure the state stops cashing in on the property of other innocent owners."

The Thunderbird was not available for comment.