Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency goes to governor

Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency goes to governor

Jay Webber

TRENTON, N.J. – The Assembly voted 77-0 Monday to advance a bill (S1963), sponsored by Assemblymen Jay Webber and Erik Peterson, requiring transparency and disclosure of civil asset forfeiture in New Jersey. It is now headed to the Gov. Phil Murphy for his consideration.

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.

“We are finally bringing the issue of asset forfeiture in New Jersey to light,” said Webber (R-Morris), who wrote the legislation in consultation with Senator Patrick Diegnan, the Senate sponsor of the legislation, and national experts on forfeiture. “Asset forfeiture is a severe process involving government’s seizure of our residents’ property, often with no finding of criminal conduct. Currently, New Jersey does 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 are unknown. Despite its significant practical and constitutional consequences for our citizens, forfeiture largely operates in the dark.”

The bill 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 AG would then be 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.

Erik Peterson

“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.”

“Everyone – law enforcement, watchdog groups, and, most importantly, our residents – benefits from the confidence and accountability that transparency provides,” said Webber.  “The only way we ultimately can police the process of asset forfeiture is through honest and comprehensive tracking, reporting, and public accessibility of the facts of forfeiture. This legislation will make New Jersey a national leader in asset forfeiture transparency.”

The bill passed the state Senate in July 2018 by a 37-0 vote.