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What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?


You may have heard the term “civil asset forfeiture” or “civil forfeiture” tossed around in the news somewhat recently. This controversial practice was brought back into the limelight when Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed his support for utilizing this practice as a way of deterring criminals, particularly those involved in the drugs and narcotics black market.

But while law enforcement claim that asset forfeiture is a valuable tool that they can utilize to deter criminals, civil liberties groups are staunchly opposed to the practice, claiming it’s a blatant and egregious violation of constitutional rights. To help you decide for yourself and learn how you may be impacted by this practice in the future, this blog will discuss what this practice entails and what New Jersey law says about it.

What Is Civil Forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is a practice that allows police and law enforcement to seize any property they suspect may be involved in a crime. This doesn’t always involve charging the property’s owner with a crime, but rather charging the property itself and thus giving law enforcement permission to seize it. Are there any required standards to make this seizure, such as probable cause? Well that depends on what state you’re in: each state has their own laws that govern civil forfeiture, and these laws vary from requiring next to no burden of proof or suspicion to outright banning the practice entirely.

Law enforcement claim the practice is particularly invaluable, as it allows them to not only go after criminals and seize things like drug money, storage houses, or transport cars used in the commission of drug trafficking, but then utilize these assets to fund their department. They claim that being able to utilize asset forfeiture helps keep taxes lower for law-abiding citizens and keeps dangerous and illegal substances out of their jurisdiction.

Civil rights groups on the other hand, tend to disagree. They see this as a method for corrupt police to simply harass citizens and loot their wallets, bank accounts, and steal their property without ever actually requiring them to prove that they did anything wrong… or even have any suspicion that they did anything wrong for that matter. And unfortunately the stories of less-than-honorable officers stealing everything from cash to cars to jewelry and other valuables from law-abiding citizens are out there in relative abundance. When people protest, the police simply say they suspect that they’ve been involved in illegal conduct, and they can either surrender the property peacefully or be arrested and have it seized anyway. Sounds an awful lot like extortion, doesn’t it?

To make matters even more complex and confusing, the odds of actually getting your property back is alarmingly low. While you are presumed innocent until your prosecution proves that you’re guilty, your property is presumed guilty until you can prove that it’s innocent. This can take weeks or even months, a long legal battle, and even then the agency may have done away with your property and used the funds to finance their operations by the time you’re successful. Many people never see their property again and are given absolutely no compensation for it, even though they never did anything wrong.

What Does New Jersey Law Say?

Bear in mind the examples given above are the most extreme cases, and they generally only happen in states where there is extremely little burden of proof required to seize property, and law enforcement agencies have very little accountability that they’re held to.

New Jersey is not one of these states, but does allow authorities to seize property without necessarily charging you with a crime. However, some evidence does have to be involved. New Jersey does authorize asset forfeiture, but only when law enforcement officers can meet the established standard known as “preponderance of evidence.” This means that when law enforcement have sufficient evidence to show that it’s more likely true than untrue that your property was used in the commission of a crime, or was intended to be used in the commission of a crime, then they can seize your property.

This is a slippery slope for law enforcement, and there are still instances of false or unwarranted property seizure, and as such many people feel that the laws need to be tightened up in order to further guarantee the right to privacy. If you’ve had your property seized, even though you were not connected to a crime and never did anything wrong, you need to contact a Bergen County criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to start fighting to prove your property’s innocence and work to get it back.

Call the Law Offices of Joseph R. Donahue, LLC today at (201) 574-7919 to request a case evaluation.
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