Asset Forfeiture

Gov. Christie Helps N.J. Police Keep Property Seizure Info Secretive

Vetoes legislation requiring better reporting of how law enforcement gets its hands on people's stuff.

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Chris Christie
Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire/Newscom

New Jersey legislators voted unanimously to require prosecutors within the state to reveal more information about how they use civil asset forfeiture, the system where police seize and keep property from people without necessarily ever having to prove they've committed a crime.

Despite unanimous approval, Republican Gov. Chris Christie just vetoed the bill, arguing that it would "jeopardize the safety of the public and law enforcement officers."

To be clear, the law does nothing of the sort. It doesn't even so much as change the rules for civil asset forfeiture, despite the propensity for law enforcement and prosecutors to abuse it on order to attempt to bankroll agencies and fill budget gaps.

What Senate Bill 2267 does is expand the amount of information county and state prosecutors provide annually about how civil asset forfeiture mechanisms are actually used within the state. Christie's not opposed to transparency completely—just perhaps the kind of transparency that could highlight some of the troublesome impacts of such forfeiture. From NJ.com:

The bill would have required prosecutors disclose to the state attorney general each seized asset, the circumstances of its seizure and the law enforcement purpose for which it was used. The attorney general would then be required to publish an annual report.

Christie instead recommended a quarterly report in which prosecutors identify seized assets and detail the legal proceedings by which they were seized.

County prosecutors already produce similar reports, which are reviewed by the Attorney General's Office but not made public, according to a spokesman for that office.

Under Christie's proposal, prosecutors also would not have to disclose why they seized an asset or for what purpose it would be used.

Christie's provisional veto (he's requesting changes for reconsideration) claims that the law would require reporting "voluminous information that has no legitimate or logical relationship to the asset being seized or the ultimate use of the asset." How could an annual report about seized property jeopardize law enforcement efforts or result in disclosures the governor declares is not relevant? It doesn't, but what the bill does require is for prosecutors to report things like:

"[A] description of the location at which the property was seized, including whether the property was seized from a private residence or business or during a traffic stop; if the property was seized during a traffic stop, the name of the highway, street, or road on which the property was seized and whether the vehicle was traveling northbound, southbound, eastbound or westbound"

Demanding such specific traffic stop detail may seem confusing, but allow me to explain. One of the twisted incentives that result from these asset forfeiture systems is that police are essentially rewarded for allowing the drug trade to occur and then attempting to snatch the profits. Evidence has shown some police keeping an eye on drug corridors with a focus on stopping and searching vehicles only the side where the money travels.

The consequence here is that anybody traveling with cash is at risk of having it seized and having the police claim that this money is the result of a drug deal (with no evidence) and attempting to keep it. Many, many outrage stories about police inappropriately attempting to seize the cash of innocent people merely driving down highways involve claims of drug trafficking. Because police are intent on trying to grab the cash rather than the drugs, they don't have any actual evidence of a crime.

Disclosing all this traffic stop information would help monitor police behavior and inform the public whether law enforcement agencies are giving preferential treatment to profiting off the drug war rather than fighting drug trafficking (not that police should be continuing to perpetuate the unwinnable drug war). This matters because law enforcement and defenders of civil asset forfeiture insist that forfeiture is all about taking down those big drug lords and grabbing their stuff. In actual practice, forfeiture gets relatively small amounts of property and cash from people who lack the resources and knowledge to fight back—particularly because the "civil" forfeiture process doesn't guarantee legal representation.

The Institute for Justice, which fights to try to stop civil forfeiture, recently graded the states for the transparency of their systems. New Jersey got a D+. While the state is very good at publicly accounting for how forfeiture funds are spent, it is much less open about how it gets its hands on people's property, something this law was attempting to fix.

C.J. Ciaramella recently wrote about the lack of state-level transparency on its use (and dependence) on civil asset forfeiture. Read more here.

Yesterday, President Donald Trump highlighted the civil asset forfeiture issue with what (we hope) is a joke threatening to destroy the career of a Texas politician looking to reform the system. It would be kind of hilarious if his boorish behavior actually drew attention to the controversy. Polls show that citizens across all demographics dislike civil asset forfeiture when it's explained to them. Taking people's property without proving they've committed a crime is not something Americans support. But the challenge is that they often don't know what "civil asset forfeiture" means and how it works. If Trump's comments causes more Americans to learn what actually happens, that sheriff may regret bringing it up.

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