You may think the only people that can have their property seized by state or local police departments are criminals. However, this is not always the case. New Jersey is one of 35 states to receive a D or worse grade from the Institute for Justice. The Institute for Justice is a Washington, D.C. based libertarian legal group. The group’s study examines the civil forfeiture laws nationwide and grades them according to their fairness.
What Are Civil Forfeiture Laws?
Civil forfeiture laws govern when a government agency can seize your money or property. If the police consider your possessions “ill-gotten gains” they can take them from you. For example, a person who has a large amount of cash can have the money seized on mere suspicion. Many people think that these laws govern only those with convictions but this is not the case. You don’t even have to receive criminal charges for the police to seize your money.
Opponents of Civil Forfeiture Laws
The Institute for Justice is not the only opponent of these types of laws. The biggest complaint is that these laws often violate a person’s right to due process. Because there isn’t even a requirement of criminal charges, police can seize anyone’s property. Then the burden of proof is on the individual to prove that the seizure was unlawful. This practice is backward in comparison to all other legal procedures. The keystone of our judicial system is that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Civil forfeiture laws take the foundation of the country’s justice system and flip it on its head.
A Mercer County police training video shows the head of the county’s forfeiture unit, Sean McMurty boasting that “We don’t even have to have to charge anyone at all” to seize their assets. Opponents claim this is the biggest red flag. County’s are training police officers to police for profit.
Another issue opponents have of civil forfeiture laws in New Jersey is the burden of proof. In a standard criminal case, the prosecution has to prove someone’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in a civil, the burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence. This means that all the prosecution most prove is that it is more likely than not that your assets were gains from criminal activity.
An example of such a case took place in Cumberland County. A car owned by a Millville resident who was then a county deputy sheriff was seized. Her son used the car to sell marijuana to an undercover officer. The police seized her car even though she claimed to have no knowledge of her son’s activities and there were no drugs found in the car. The car was later returned but not until after a long legal battle.
Following the Money
The biggest problem with civil forfeiture laws is who gets the profits. Between 2009 and 2013 seizures total more than $72 million and this isn’t an exact number. Another knock on New Jersey is the lack of transparency with their forfeiture procedures. The state does not keep very accurate accounts of all of the property they seize. The Institute for Justice claims that this is a “vast undercount” of what is going on in New Jersey.
So where does the money go? To police agencies of course. New Jersey police agencies keep all of the property and money they seize. This creates an incentive to keep more assets in more cases. State policing budgets are tight across the board and if a department can increase their revenue to pay for newer equipment of more officers they probably will. Incentivizing police to seize money and property is a slippery slope. The interest of upholding justice may take a back seat to padding their pockets.
Not all seizures are unlawful of course. There are some legitimate reasons to have civil forfeiture laws in place like hurting the bottom line of drug cartels. However, the practice certainly needs a change to minimize the effects it can have on innocent people.
Civil Forfeiture Recovery
If you find yourself in a situation where a government agency seizes your property unlawfully, there is a way to fight back. The burden of proof will fall on you. Getting your property back is not an easy process, and you will want to find an attorney with experience in these types of cases. Douglas Herring has 15 years of experience in civil forfeiture cases. He will use his knowledge to fight for you and get you the justice you deserve. You don’t have to fight alone. Contact The Law Offices of Douglas Herring today to find out the best way to proceed with your case.