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.
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.