New Jersey is the latest state to take action to curb the excesses of civil asset forfeiture after the state legislature passed a bill last week.
The New Jersey Senate passed the bill by an overwhelming 36-3 vote. Having previously been passed by the House, it will now go to the Governor’s desk. Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to sign the legislation.
The legislation will make it mandatory for a criminal conviction to be secured before property can be seized using asset forfeiture laws in certain situations.
In addition, Gov. Murphy signed a transparency bill into law that will force law enforcement to inform the public about the details of their civil asset forfeiture operations on a quarterly basis.
“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, who works as a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice (IJ), is praising New Jersey for the reforms they are instituting against civil asset forfeiture.
“This bill not only codified existing practices but also drastically improved at what they were doing in the past,” she said of the transparency bill.
However, McDonald believes that more work is needed for New Jersey to eliminate asset forfeiture abuses completely. The legislation only requires a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases that involve less than $1,000 in cash or $10,000 in property. McDonald called the legislation a “modest improvement” but is concerned that 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,” she said.
IJ issued a D- grade for New Jersey while ranking their civil asset forfeiture laws in 2015 because of the “low bar to forfeit and no conviction required” with law enforcement soaking up 100 percent of the revenues from forfeitures in many cases as well as “poor protections for innocent third-party property owners.”
“In order to forfeit property, the government need only show by a preponderance of the evidence that the property was used in a crime. Innocent owners bear the burden of proving that they had nothing to do with the alleged criminal use of their property,” they wrote.
“Even worse, Garden State law enforcement enjoys a hefty financial incentive to seize: Local law enforcement agencies retain 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds. And when the state attorney general’s office brings a forfeiture case, it retains 95 percent of proceeds; the remaining five percent it deposits into the Hepatitis Inoculation Fund,” they added.
Because of their recent reforms, New Jersey may enjoy a more favorable rating during the next round of IJ rankings although they still have a ways to go before ending the practice altogether.