Washington, D.C.-The New Jersey Appellate Court today upheld the constitutionality of a law that permits police and prosecutors to keep the money and property confiscated from individuals through the state’s civil forfeiture law, giving law enforcement officials a direct financial stake in the outcome of forfeiture efforts. The decision by the three-judge panel overturns a December 2002 state trial court decision that struck down the law as unconstitutional under the Due Process clauses of the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.
“We are disappointed that the appellate court, unlike the trial court, refused to protect New Jersey property owners from this kind of conflict of interest and perverse incentive system,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm litigating the New Jersey case. “We will definitely appeal this decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court, where we are confident that this law will again be declared unconstitutional.”
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 came from civil forfeiture proceeds. Those figures demonstrate the financial incentives 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 has written a treatise on forfeiture laws and is a former deputy chief of the 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.
Thomas said about today’s decision: “I view this simply as a setback. I got my car back, we won in the first round, and I believe the New Jersey Supreme Court will also find this law unconstitutional—and it must for the sake of the citizens of New Jersey.”
Thomas concluded, “Police officers should be concerned with the fair administration of law, not with bounty hunting. The current law creates too much of an incentive for law enforcement officers to abuse individuals’ rights so they can take in more money. I’ve experienced this first hand and the law needs to change.”