Victory in Civil Asset Forfeiture Case May Mean Greater Protection of Property Rights in New Jersey

John Kramer
John Kramer · January 19, 2001

Washington, D.C.-Winning a second victory for property rights in as many days, the Institute for Justice praised a New Jersey court decision issued today that may reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

In a case involving former Cumberland County deputy sheriff Carol Thomas, whose own car was seized when her son was caught in a drug bust, Judge G. Thomas Bowen, reading from the bench, dismissed the government’s claim against Thomas’s car, ordered title to her car and a $1,500 bond she posted to be returned to her, and allowed a counter suit filed by Thomas challenging the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to continue in court. Just yesterday, the Institute for Justice announced a first-round victory in another property rights case, this one in New York dealing with the abuse of eminent domain.

Thomas’s case, State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird, arose in 1999 when Thomas’s then 17-year-old son used her Thunderbird to sell marijuana—without her knowledge or consent—to an undercover officer. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to the charge, and faced his punishment. But that did not end the matter. In addition to pursuing the criminal case, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office also pursued Thomas’s car in a civil forfeiture proceeding even though no drugs were found in the car, she bought the car with a bank loan, and she unquestionably was not aware of and did not consent to her son’s actions. Mrs. Thomas is an unlikely crusader because at the time of her son’s arrest, she was a seven-year veteran officer with the Sheriff’s Office drug task force. Thomas has subsequently left the force and is fighting abusive forfeiture laws.

New Jersey’s civil forfeiture law dangerously transforms law enforcement priorities from the fair and impartial administration of justice to the pursuit of property and profit. New Jersey police departments and prosecutors’ offices are entitled to keep money and property confiscated through the state’s civil forfeiture law, thus giving them a direct financial stake in these forfeitures.

“We are thrilled not only that Carol got her property back, but that the court will now consider the constitutionality of New Jersey’s forfeiture scheme,” said Scott Bullock, the Institute for Justice attorney who argued the case on Thomas’s behalf. “It is vital for the protection of property owners in New Jersey that police and prosecutors not turn away from the impartial administration of justice in the pursuit of profit. The fact that her counter claim continues means that while she’s won a victory for herself, she can now champion property rights for everyone else in the state.”

Judge Bowen found that it is in the public interest to decide whether or not New Jersey’s perverse incentive structure violates the due process clause of the Constitution. The case will ensue in the coming months.

“Of course I’m happy to get my bond back,” Thomas said, “but most of all I’m happy that we’ll be able to help other people by changing this law. I’ve won my case, now I want to make sure the state stops cashing in on the property of other innocent owners.”