Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency becomes effective

Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency becomes effective

TRENTON, N.J. – Today marks the effective date of landmark legislation mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for civil asset forfeiture in New Jersey.  July 1 starts the clock on the first quarterly reporting period required by the act. The first public reporting is due in October.

The legislation was sponsored by Assemblymen Jay Webber and Erik Peterson and co-sponsored by Assemblywomen Holly Schepisi and Serena DiMaso.

“Everyone – law enforcement, watchdog groups, and, most importantly, our residents – benefits from the confidence and accountability that transparency provides,” said Webber (R-Morris), who wrote the legislation in consultation with national experts and Sen. Patrick Diegnan, who sponsored the Senate version.

“The only way we ensure that our forfeiture system works as intended is through honest and comprehensive tracking, reporting, and public accessibility of the facts,” continued Webber.  “We made New Jersey a national leader in asset forfeiture transparency, and we look forward to seeing the results collected and published this fall.”

Civil asset forfeiture can be a useful tool for law enforcement, but it also can be controversial because it allows government officials to seize assets like money and cars from people even before they have been convicted of a crime.

The law requires prosecutors to disclose to the attorney general quarterly about each seized asset, the circumstances of its seizure, and the law enforcement purpose for which the recovered funds were used. The attorney general is then required to publish an annual report and make a searchable database of seized assets available to the public.

The nonpartisan Institute for Justice ranked New Jersey among the worst states for civil asset forfeiture protections for innocent third-party property owners. The institute found that the state’s 21 county prosecutors seized $72.6 million in assets between 2009 and 2013, including more than $57 million in cash.

“It’s un-American to take people’s property under the premise that it was gained through criminal activity when a person has not been convicted of a crime,” said Peterson (R-Hunterdon). “When homes, cars, money, and other property worth millions of dollars are seized every year, there must be adequate controls in place to prevent abuses. There’s no uniform seizure policy across the state making the reporting in this bill necessary. It shines a light on who is taking assets and how they are using the money to benefit taxpayers.”

“We are finally bringing the issue of asset forfeiture in New Jersey to light,” said Webber.  “Asset forfeiture is a severe process involving government’s seizure of our residents’ property, often with no finding of criminal conduct. Until today, New Jersey did not require that agencies track or report on asset forfeiture, and therefore the most basic facts about how this practice is being used, or abused, on a statewide basis have been unknown.  The sunshine starts now, and we are all better for it.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legislation into law on Jan. 13.