Law enforcement officers should not be engaged in bounty hunting. That is the commonsense idea at the center of a challenge to New Jersey’s civil forfeiture law, which dangerously transforms law enforcement priorities away from the fair and impartial administration of justice and toward the pursuit of property and profit. How? New Jersey prosecutors and police are entitled to keep the money and property confiscated from individuals through the state’s civil forfeiture law, thus giving them a direct financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture efforts.
From 1998 to 2000, New Jersey police and prosecutors collected an astonishing nearly $32 million in property and currency through the application of the civil forfeiture law. Forfeiture funds went to everything from overtime pay to the purchase of automobiles to a golf outing, from office furnishings to expenses at prosecutor conventions in Atlantic City and elsewhere.
Tomorrow (November 12), oral argument will take place in a landmark case that seeks to eliminate New Jersey’s perverse forfeiture incentive scheme, State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird. The case is led by perhaps an unlikely crusader, Carol Thomas of Millville in southern New Jersey. Her case arose in 1999 when Thomas’ then 17-year-old son used her Thunderbird without her knowledge and consent to sell marijuana to an undercover officer. Her son was arrested and punished, but that did not end the matter. The State still went after the car by filing a civil forfeiture action because the car was involved in illegal activity. Ironically, at the time of her son’s arrest, Thomas was a seven-year veteran officer with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. Thomas has subsequently left the sheriff’s department and decided to fight abusive forfeiture laws.
Last year, the Institute scored a first-round victory in this case when it secured the release of Thomas’ car. The judge allowed her challenge to New Jersey’s unconstitutional profit motive to continue and now that battle moves to center stage at the hearing.