Civil Asset Forfeiture

New Jersey Passes Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms

New Jersey took two major steps toward increasing transparency and strengthening protections for property owners against civil asset forfeiture.

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New Jersey took two major steps yesterday toward reforming law enforcement's use of civil asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police and prosecutors to seize property even when the owner isn't convicted, or sometimes even charged with a crime.

The Democratic-controlled New Jersey Senate passed a bill Monday by a 36-3 vote requiring a criminal conviction in certain cases before police and prosecutors can take property using civil forfeiture. 

That same day, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed a transparency bill into law that will require quarterly reporting by police departments detailing their forfeiture activities. Murphy said the new law will be "a huge step forward for transparency and accountability."

"New Jersey law enforcement agencies currently have no permanent statutory requirement to disclose civil asset forfeitures," Murphy said. "This legislation would boost confidence in our justice system by requiring county prosecutors to track and report data on this practice."

Jennifer McDonald, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states, called the new transparency requirements "fantastic."

"This bill not only codified existing practices but also drastically improved at what they were doing in the past," she says.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed a similar transparency bill in 2017.

A 2018 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey found that there were almost no transparency requirements surrounding civil asset forfeiture in the state, and that the practice disproportionately affected minorities.

The new requirements will create an online database showing the public what police seized, the value of the item, the exact location of the seizure, whether the forfeiture case was settled, and the ultimate fate of the property.

Civil asset forfeiture laws were intended to allow police and prosecutors to target the illicit proceeds of organized crime, and law enforcement groups say they are a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking.

However, civil liberties groups say there are too few procedural protections for innocent property owners, who bear the burden of going to civil court to challenge the seizure, and too many perverse profit incentives for police departments and prosecutors, whose budgets are often padded by forfeiture proceeds.

Reason has detailed numerous cases of people whose cars, money, and even homes were seized for petty drug crimes or, in some cases, just for having large amounts of cash on hand. 

Cases like those have led more than half of U.S. states to pass some form of civil forfeiture reform over the past decade. 

A few states—New Mexico, North Carolina, and Nebraska—essentially abolished civil forfeiture by requiring a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited. Others have passed laws funneling forfeiture revenues into general funds, rather than police department budgets, or set threshold limits on when property can be seized through civil forfeiture.

The bill passed by the New Jersey Senate on Monday will require a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases involving under $1,000 in cash or $10,000 in property.

McDonald said the bill was a "modest improvement," but "it still allows civil forfeiture to go on and it doesn't even require a conviction for all property types."

"We want them to continue to push forward for ending civil forfeiture entirely and replacing it with criminal forfeiture."

The legislation now goes to the desk of Murphy, who will decide whether to sign it into law.

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  1. Asset forfeiture does not need reforming.
    It needs to be declared for what it is; unconstitutional.

    1. “That asset forfeiture continues is unsustainable.”

    2. Great. This. Civil money penalties are an abomination. You don’t get to use the hammer of the state to compel payment, then hide behind a lack of due process by claiming it’s civil, not criminal.

  2. O/T

    Long ago, when NJ legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, then Governor Tom Kean was asked to comment on the increase in crimes in the city that accompanied the first casino.

    His answer – “Last year, there was nothing worth stealing”.

    1. AC has been called ‘Camden By The Sea’ at times.

      I will say this. We’re at the tail end of a historic real estate buying opportunity in AC. When those casinos shut down, it was a real estate mini-geddon. Prices tanked. The market is now showing signs of life.

      So much to recommend it: location, shore, good transportation infrastructure, commutable to Philly….and it never went anywhere.

      1. Unbelievably corrupt city government…

        The shore is all it has to offer. That’s a long commute for work, and the transportation infrastructure can’t support any kind of manufacturing base (no railyards or ports), and no reason for tech/white collar jobs to go there.

        Prices are cheap, for sure, but it’s a hell of a risk.

        1. Were I much younger, without responsibility, staying for the long haul, and had disposable income; this is the risk to take. But you are right, the petty corruption has been endemic.

        2. It’s still in New Jersey, right? Then hell no.

          I’d rather live below 8 Mile in suburban Detroit.

      2. Come to think of at, AC is a lot like Camden. A high-value waterfront, surrounded by a slum.

  3. You should be proud that your betters wish to confiscate your guns and money for the betterment of all, clingers.

    1. They may wish to confiscate my guns and money, but at least I get to keep my lawyers.

    2. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Reverend. 🙂

  4. “The bill passed by the New Jersey Senate on Monday will require a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases involving under $1,000 in cash or $10,000 in property.”

    So they can say they did something For the Poor, while allowing cops to steal larger sums of money or higher-value property.

    “This is New Jersey – don’t steal any penny-ante amounts.”

    1. That and keep on looting!

  5. They need to require criminal convictions in all cases, prevent cops from a workaround by getting feds involved, and make sure that the cops and persecutors do not get any of the money or property.

    1. Agree. It won’t happen, but I agree.

  6. You know, this is one area where Reason really makes a difference, and they should be recognized for their reporting of the abuses of asset forfeiture.

  7. So the GOP governor wanted asset forfeiture huched up and protected, and now a Dem sits in the mansion by a huge margin after the Libertarian candidate got more votes than Tonie Nathan and John Hospers in 1972. What gives? The party of Harding 1921, Bert Hoover (Crash, Depression), Dick Nixon 1971-3, Reagan 1987, Bush 1992 and Bushie 1988 managed to coincide prohibitionist asset forfeiture with crashes and recessions in a fractional-reserve banking system with amazing consistency.

  8. While North Carolina has long banned civil forfeiture by the state, it does unfortunately allow “equitable sharing,” where state authorities give the case to the Feds in exchange for a share of the loot. Other states may be similar. (Still a good step, though.)

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