Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency

Legislation making New Jersey a national leader in forfeiture transparency

Jay Webber

TRENTON, N.J. – A bill requiring transparency and disclosure about civil asset forfeiture in New Jersey is again progressing through the Legislature.

The legislation (S1963), sponsored by Assemblymen Jay Webber and Erik Peterson, gained unanimous approval Thursday from the state Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.

The practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, is controversial because it means government officials take assets like money and cars from people before they have been convicted of a crime.

“We finally are bringing sunshine to asset forfeiture in New Jersey,” said Webber (R-Morris), who wrote the legislation in consultation with national experts on forfeiture and with Senator Patrick Diegnan, the Senate sponsor of the legislation.  “Asset forfeiture is a severe process involving government’s seizure and taking of our residents’ property, often with no finding of criminal conduct.  Currently, no New Jersey law requires that agencies track or report on asset forfeiture, and therefore the most basic facts about forfeiture are not disclosed.  Despite its significant practical and constitutional consequences for our citizens, forfeiture largely operates in darkness.”

The bill requires prosecutors to disclose to the state attorney general quarterly about each seized asset, the circumstances of its seizure, and the law enforcement purpose for which it was used. The attorney general would then be required to publish an annual report and make a searchable database available to the public.

The nonpartisan Institute for Justice ranked New Jersey among the worst for having a low bar and poor protections for innocent third-party property owners.  It 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 by 37-0 vote.