A new deep-dive report issued by the ACLU-NJ on civil asset forfeiture showed disturbing racial disparities and other alarming trends in local law enforcement’s use of the practice throughout the Garden State. Every county in New Jersey relies on these forfeitures, and they disproportionately harm people of color.
The ACLU-NJ combed through data obtained via the Open Public Records Act covering January through May 2016 regarding use of civil asset forfeiture, breaking down the information by county and municipality.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize a person’s money, car, or any other property based on the suspicion that it bears a link to criminal activity. Even if a person is never charged with a crime, the government can still take and keep their money or belongings through this legal process.
The ACLU-NJ filed public records requests in order to identify how this system affects New Jerseyans, and even went to court to gain access to one county’s data. This project led to the creation of ACLU-NJ’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Resource Guide, which outlines the basics of civil asset forfeiture and presents concerning correlations within the data.
“The civil asset forfeiture system has proved prone to widespread abuse, but it’s also ripe for sweeping reform,” said ACLU-NJ Catalyst Fellow Liza Weisberg, who contributed to the report as part of a two-year fellowship to combat civil asset forfeiture abuse through litigation and policy advocacy. “We see a path forward that can get us there.”
The numbers demonstrate civil asset forfeiture’s disproportionate effect on Black and Latinx New Jerseyans, who are more likely to be stopped by police. Specifically, areas in New Jersey with greater populations of people of color tended to have higher numbers of seizures.
The full breakdown by municipality and county can be found at the Civil Asset Forfeiture Report page.
The largest volume of forfeiture actions within the five-month period occurred in Hudson County, where the ACLU-NJ has documented racial disparities in police stops. In Jersey City, Hudson County’s seat, Black people were arrested for low-level offenses at a rate 9.6 times higher than that of white people.
Forfeiture actions more commonly take place in highly policed, low-income communities, where standard filing fees to mount a court challenge can themselves be prohibitive. These conditions create perverse incentives for law enforcement to stop more people. The people swept up by forfeiture in these communities are less likely to challenge the forfeiture of their assets, given the high costs of litigation and the lack of free legal representation in forfeiture cases. On top of the financial burdens of contesting forfeiture actions, those who go to court face a difficult legal battle because the government is held to a low burden of proof.
While Weisberg has taken on individual civil asset forfeiture abuses in the courts, the state Legislature must implement reform to combat the harms of the practice.
“We need dramatic and widespread reform of civil asset forfeiture, and ultimately, we need to end the practice altogether. Both of these things require the Legislature to act,” said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou “At a time when the federal government has announced plans to augment civil asset forfeiture, it’s especially important for New Jersey to begin mending the painful rifts civil asset forfeiture abuse has caused in our state, especially in communities of color.”
The ACLU-NJ would like to see an end to civil asset forfeiture. On the road to abolition, the organization calls on policymakers to take the following steps to rein in abuse:
- Prohibit forfeiture actions absent criminal convictions and install the protections of criminal forum in forfeiture cases, including the criminal burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the right to legal counsel.
- Remove the profit motive by directing the proceeds of forfeiture into the state general fund. If there is an incentive to line their own pockets, law enforcement will continue to prey on our most vulnerable communities, who are too often unable to fight back against the abuse of power.
- Put in place meaningful transparency and accountability measures.