Washington, D.C.—Today, a former sheriff turned constitutional crusader filed an appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court to challenge a state law that permits police and prosecutors to keep the money and property confiscated from individuals through the state’s civil forfeiture law.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court needs to hear this case to protect the constitutional rights of all property owners in the state from legalized bounty-hunting,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm litigating the case. “The law creates a perverse incentive system for law enforcement officials by encouraging them to be more concerned about the pursuit of property and profit rather than the fair administration of justice.”
In July 2004, the State Appellate Court upheld this law even though a state trial court had previously ruled that the forfeiture incentive system was unconstitutional under the Due Process clauses of the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.
From 1998 to 2000 alone, New Jersey police and prosecutors collected an astonishing $31-plus million in property and currency through the state’s civil forfeiture law. During that same period, on average, close to 30 percent of the discretionary budgets of county prosecutor offices were paid with civil forfeiture proceeds. Those figures demonstrate the financial incentives that seizing and keeping forfeited bounty creates for law enforcement officers.
As Superior Court Judge G. Thomas Bowen of Salem County recognized in his original opinion striking down the law, forfeiture money has been used for “rent for a motor pool crime scene facility, office furniture, telecommunications and computer equipment, automobile purchase, fitness and training equipment purchase, a golf outing, food, including food for seminars and meetings, and expenses of law enforcement conferences, at various locations.”
The New Jersey case, State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird, has been followed nationwide. David Smith, an Alexandria, Va.., attorney who wrote a treatise on forfeiture laws and is a former deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s asset forfeiture office declared, “This is the single most important civil forfeiture case being litigated anywhere.” Several other states and the federal forfeiture law also permit police and prosecutors to keep forfeited property and proceeds.
The case was filed by perhaps an unlikely crusader, Carol Thomas of Millville in southern New Jersey. Thomas’ case arose in 1999 when her 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.