A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey finds that state and local law enforcement agencies are seizing cash and other property from those accused of crimes with little oversight.
The process known as civil asset forfeiture is happening in every county in New Jersey, according to the report.
“The police are empowered to stop a person on the street, take the money from their pockets alleging that it has some connection to criminal activity, and then [the police] get to keep that property unless the person comes forward and mounts an expensive legal challenge,” said Liza Weisberg, a Catalyst Fellow at the ACLU-NJ who helped write the report.
Civil asset forfeitures tended to happen more often in cities and towns in New Jersey with higher minority populations, the report said.
The civil legal process also does not guarantee those challenging a forfeiture the right to an attorney, forcing them to hire private counsel or argue their case themselves.
“This puts claimants in the position of trying to prove a negative, which is exceedingly hard,” Weisberg said. They are “trying to prove that the money that the police seized from was not the proceeds of a crime, was not connected to any criminal activity.”
A representative of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who oversees the county prosecutors who bring civil asset forfeiture cases, said the office has not yet reviewed the ACLU report.
A request to the NJ State Association of Chiefs of Police seeking comment was not answered.
The report analyzed data from January through May of 2016 and found that New Jersey law enforcement agencies seized property 1,860 times with a total value of $5.5 million.
New Jersey authorities took cash, cars, six pairs of shoes, an iPod, an unopened condom and vibrator, and other items, according to the report.
Weisberg said civil asset forfeiture is ripe for reform, starting with removing the provision that allows police agencies to profit directly from property seizures.
“Right now police have this direct perverse incentive to steal as much as possible from folks who are least able to fight back because that’s a windfall for them,” Weisberg said.
Law enforcement agencies sometimes use the proceeds to fund training, equipment, or community programs.
The report also suggested increasing transparency requirements and barring New Jersey law enforcement agencies from seizing any property before a defendant is convicted.
A bill passed by the state Senate but awaiting a hearing in the Assembly would require county prosecutors to compile quarterly reports on civil asset forfeitures by law enforcement agencies in that county.
“This transparency will be essential in order for us to determine the necessity of future asset forfeiture policy or reforms,” said co-sponsor Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, in July.
“We support our law enforcement officers and don’t want to see them pushed by their superiors to aggressively seize assets to help balance their local budgets. Heightened transparency will discourage policing for profit and make New Jersey a safer place for all.”