”Innocent until proven guilty” – except in the case of civil asset forfeiture. Simply put, civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize (potentially keep or sell) property they allege has been involved in a crime. The property is “guilty” not the person who the property is taken from. In fact, the owner of the property may never even be charged with a crime. Yet, the government is allowed to take the property and the person is forced to undertake the cost of proving its innocence and most can’t afford the cost. It is time for New Jersey to take action and reform the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
I know most people have never heard of, much less encountered this issue. Yet, last month, the ACLU released a report highlighting that in the first 6 months of 2016 over $5.5 million in cash and 234 cars were seized by the government. The individual amounts of cash seized vary greatly. For example, in Jersey City (which had the most incidents) the average cash value taken was $429. Recovering your property under this system is difficult and expensive and can only be done through trial. According to the ACLU’s report, half of the civil forfeitures in Hudson County were worth under $175. To recover your property, you would have to go to court and pay the filing fees which is about $50-$75 and spend a day or two out of work to fight for your property. Because it is a civil case, you have no right to free counsel. Obviously, this is a cost-prohibitive process, which is why less than 3% of civil forfeiture cases ever make it to court. Meaning 97% of cases are won by the prosecutor without ever using a piece of evidence. Even if you’re successful and retrieve your property- you may have to pay additional fees to recover it (such as a storage fee). Therefore, New Jersey should establish a minimum threshold amount that is allowed to be seized without criminal conviction. I have proposed legislation that establishes that level at $1,000.
Let me be clear – civil forfeiture is distinct from criminal forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture is clearly tied to criminal activity and has a different process of prosecution. Civil forfeiture is not tied to
criminal activity, property-owners do not need to be arrested therefore, they have no right to an attorney.
This is also not about abuse or misconduct by law enforcement. Our police officers are operating under the laws as established by the state. What is wrong, is the State of New Jersey having a law that allows the government to seize property without due process, and no reporting mechanism.
This is a civil rights issue and we need to address it. Several states, such as Arizona, Kansas, and Colorado have already eliminated the practice. Although, I think this would be the best path, I understand there is opposition.
However, there are concrete steps that can be taken to reform the current system. First, we need greater accountability and transparency. Pending legislation, which passed previously but was vetoed by Governor Christie will address this issue. Second, citizens should not be forced to hire an attorney, pay court or storage fees if they are not charged with a crime. Third, the state needs more research and data on this important issue. Only with more information can we understand the impact of the practice.
This is not a Democrat or Republican issue – everyone supports the tenant “innocent until proven guilty.” I am excited that the New Jersey Legislature is taking the issue seriously and hope meaningful reforms will be implemented.