For those who regularly watch the national news, you likely have seen stories about civil asset forfeiture. This is the very controversial practice of police seizing property they allege was involved in or derived from some criminal activity without providing evidence or proving any guilt. Indeed, many are not even charged with a crime.
People have lost huge sums of money to civil asset forfeiture, but they have also lost homes, cars and a host of other valuable items without being charged with a crime. The practice is supposed to deter crime, but many say it violates due process rights. And, it has become a huge money-making scheme by some police departments that appear to prioritize profit over justice.
New Jersey’s civil asset forfeiture laws
Unfortunately, our state does have both criminal and civil asset forfeiture laws, and the civil statute is among the worst in the nation, according to the Institute for Justice. While criminal forfeiture requires a conviction to seize property, civil forfeiture does not. A civil forfeiture can be initiated by both state and federal law enforcement who equitable share (split the assets taken) forfeited property.
The Institute for Justice gave the Garden State a grade of D- in its 2020 report. It cited many reasons for the grade, but most notably, it said that our state has a very low standard of proof required, we lack innocent owner defenses and the state offers a high financial incentive to the police to pursue civil asset forfeitures.
Civil asset forfeiture reforms
In January 2020, the state passed two bills allegedly to improve transparency and accountability in our state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, S1963 and S1500. Both were signed into law on January 13, 2020, and they both went into immediate effect. However, neither law actually addresses any of the underlying problems of these laws. Instead, they simply create reporting requirements and a searchable database.
Unfortunately, all of the horror stories you heard about are happening right here in our home state. There really is not a way to avoid this except to try and avoid transporting high-value items in your car and never carry large amounts of cash.