N.J. lawmakers press for rule changes on civil asset forfeiture

New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

New Jersey State Capitol building in Trenton. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

New Jersey lawmakers are looking to overhaul how the state’s law enforcement agencies seize property they suspect is linked to crimes.

The process — known as civil asset forfeiture — has come under scrutiny from lawmakers and advocates for its disparate use across New Jersey and for the lack of data available on property seizures.

Akil Roper, chief counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey, said civil asset forfeiture is toughest on the poor and minorities.

“Low-income people are among the hardest hit as they are more likely to carry cash and have limited means to challenge unjust forfeitures,” Roper said. “Loss of a vehicle can disrupt employment, health care, and other family obligations and personal freedoms.”

“Disproportionate impact on racial minorities is likely, given the higher rates of arrest for persons of color and its frequent employ in urban areas” he added.

Lawmakers on the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee approved a package of bills Thursday that would limit what property can be seized; require county prosecutors to regularly report data on asset forfeiture; require that the state determine if court fees are too high; and study the lack of legal representation in forfeiture challenges.

While criminal justice advocates praised the bills, many also said they could go further.

Liza Weisberg, a fellow with the ACLU of New Jersey, suggested that asset forfeiture should be part of the criminal court process — not a separate civil matter.

Unlike criminal defendants, defendants in civil cases are not entitled to public defenders.

“Forfeiture cases are complex, confusing, and nearly impossible to navigate without an attorney,” Weisberg said.

New Jersey law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars in property each year, sometimes before a defendant is convicted.

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