Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, cars, boats, houses, and other assets are seized by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office from citizens when they are suspected of committing a crime, in a practice known as “civil asset forfeiture.”
The property, which is seized ostensibly because of its use in an alleged crime, can be held under a separate civil lawsuit and returned only after a legal challenge.
In Hudson County, assets are most often seized in small amounts and from marginalized communities. Police departments then sell that property at police auctions with the proceeds going to fund the departments. Advocates for reform liken the practice to a shakedown, legalized mugging, and policing for profit.
Those who have property seized can go to court to get their property back, but the legal process is often more expensive than the value of the property itself. In 2016, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office seized $171 from Jersey City resident Jermaine Mitchell when police arrested him for a drug offense, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It would have cost Mitchell $175 to file a challenge.
County gets the loot
Hudson County seized more than $627 thousand worth of assets in 453 seizures from January to May of 2016, according to the ACLU report. More than $5.5 million was seized across the state over the same time span. Jersey City topped the list, by far, in number of seizures over that time, with 346, while Newark and Paterson ranked second and third, respectively, with 175 and 93. Union City ranked tenth at 23 seizures. According to the report, areas with greater populations of people of color tended to have a higher number of seizures.
Bills to ban the shakedowns
Now, New Jersey Assembly representatives, including two from Hudson County, have successfully passed four bills that would reform civil asset forfeiture laws. One of the bills would establish a “Fairness in Asset Forfeiture Proceedings Task Force” and would study “the nature, extent and consequences of the lack of legal representation of certain New Jersey residents in asset forfeiture proceedings.” It was passed before but vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie. The bills are now awaiting a vote in the New Jersey State Senate.
A second bill would “revise procedures for certain asset forfeiture proceedings and require criminal conviction for forfeiture of certain seized property” for “$1,000 or less in the case of property in the form of cash, 40 negotiable instruments, or other cash equivalents; or $25,000 or less in the case of property other than cash, 42 negotiable instruments, or other cash equivalent.” That means that the person suspected of a crime would be allowed to keep up to $1,000 in cash or $25,000 in property unless that person is convicted. Currently, all cash and property in that person’s possession can be seized and sold by the police.
Elected officials weigh in
A third bill would urge the New Jersey Supreme Court to study lowering court fees in civil asset forfeiture cases. A fourth bill would establish forfeiture reporting and transparency requirements.
“I think these bills make sense. There has been widespread support for it,” said 31st District Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, who represents Bayonne and parts of Jersey City. “The idea that you’re not going to charge me for a crime, but you’re going to take my property doesn’t make sense to me. The property is guilty. That’s the nuance that makes all the difference in the world.”
“It is important to determine if this is the best practice to put in place to encourage our residents to pursue their civil rights,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight in a statement.
“I’ve been aware of this as an issue for years. Now that I’m in a position to do something about it, it’s time to act,” said Chiaravalloti. “New Jersey is a pretty progressive state, for the most part. And this is a movement that we’re seeing across the country.”
Prosecutors in opposition
The NJ Assembly Appropriations Committee held hearings on May 20 in which Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez submitted testimony opposing the bills. She argued that civil asset forfeiture helps keep people safe by prohibiting people who are suspected of criminal activity from using their property to engage in that criminal activity.
“If criminals are in essence rewarded by being allowed to benefit from the proceeds of their criminal activity or the actual instrumentalities of their crimes, then they will simply use these assets to further criminal activity,” wrote Suarez on behalf of the County Prosecutors Association of NJ. She wrote that changes to the monetary value limits of what can be seized “is not in the public’s interest” and proposed lowering the limit from the bill’s $1,000 threshold to $500.
Suarez did not return a request for comment by press time.
Liza Weisberg, a fellow at the ACLU who co-authored the report on civil asset forfeiture takes issue with that arbitrary designation, regardless of whether it’s $500 or $1,000.
“Someone who has had $1,500 in cash or $500 in cash seized from them is still going to spend more than that if they’re planning to hire a private attorney to go against the power of the government. That’s assuming they can do that when they’ve had what might be their entire life savings seized by police.” Weisberg said. “We have to recognize that, in practice, if we’re tinkering around the edges, we’re just shifting the incentives and creating a new, more efficient tactic for exploiting our communities.”
The back story
Civil asset forfeiture is a remnant of the “war on drugs.” According to opponents, the practice shifted the responsibility of addressing drug addiction, public health, poverty, and civil rights from the government onto economically marginalized communities. It criminalized and imprisoned them in the process. As Suarez said, the idea was to strip people of the assets needed to commit crime.
The problem, opponents argue, is that those assets are the same ones needed to support a family. It may be the family car that is seized or the family’s rent money. The notion that people cannot commit crimes without assets is faulty, this faction argues. Low-paying jobs and the lack of money to support a family, which defines poverty, is often the incentive that necessitates crime to begin with.
“This is a false tension,” Weisberg said. “I think our communities and police departments are much better served by a system where a police officer’s success is not brazenness in stealing from people they’re meant to protect. To the fullest extent, police departments should have the resources they need, but [civil asset forfeiture] doesn’t make us safer or make them better at their jobs. They shouldn’t have to depend on stealing from people to serve their bottom lines.”
Chiaravalloti said that for the most part police are not on board with the practice.
“Most of the police officers and retirees I spoke to either never did it or said that in this day and age, with body cameras and iPhones, wouldn’t do it because they wouldn’t want to put themselves out there,” said Chiaravalloti. “Some of the supporters of the legislation believe that [civil asset forfeiture] is financially motivated. There may be some of that at some level. I don’t believe the front-line law enforcement officer cares about the financial benefits.”
Chiaravalloti added that the legislation isn’t “exactly what I wanted,” and that his goal is to “not let perfection be the enemy of progress.”
“Maybe with a couple more tweaks, we can get it in front of the governor to get him to sign,” he said.
Weisberg said, “The ultimate solution is staring us in the face. It’s to fold civil forfeiture into the existing mechanism known as criminal forfeiture, which is the same thing but happens in criminal prosecutions. There is no need for this separate, expensive, exploitative, parallel civil process because there is a clear better way that is simpler and cheaper and would make all our communities safer and healthier.”
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Rory Pasqariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.