A bill to require county prosecutors to provide annual reports of assets seized through civil forfeiture to the Attorney General advanced in a Senate committee Thursday in a unanimous vote. The New Jersey ACLU weighed in with testimony in support of the bill, saying that it would bring transparency and accountability to a practice that has become a cornerstone of police departments’ funding in recent years.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-18), would make prosecutors report the nature of the crime and the status of the money or property seized — whether it was sold, kept or spent by the police department. Dianna Houenou, policy counsel with the ACLU, testified that departments do not have to formally disclose information about seizures under existing law.
Civil forfeiture has become a widespread and controversial practice across the country, as it allows police departments to take suspected criminals’ property without a conviction. Cash and cars make up the bulk of those assets subject to seizure.
“Civil asset forfeiture has been called ‘policing for profit,’” Houenou said in her testimony. “Now, this has become a big business. The amount of money that the state of New Jersey has received as a result of these practices has been enormous. Between 2009 and 2013, law enforcement has acquired more than $72 million in private citizens’ assets.”
Combined with its share of federal seizures, New Jersey has received $131 million from forfeitures, the bulk of which come from seized cash. Those funds, Houenou said, come with no reporting requirements and can place a burden on alleged offenders’ family members.
“Take for example a mother whose car was seized because her son allegedly sold drugs from the vehicle,” Houenou continued. “The mother can lose her car, even if she does not now of the son’s actions, even if she was completely unaware of it.”
Senator Nicholas Sacco (D-32), before voting yes, pointed to forfeiture’s ability to help police make improvements to their departments without dipping into taxpayer money and said he would be voting for the bill as a show of good faith.
“Transparency isn’t a bad thing, so at least it’ll be reported,” Sacco said. “So again, I’m not against forfeiture but if we’re going to shed some light on some potential abuses, I’m not saying there are, I’ll vote yes.”
Diegnan echoed Sacco’s arguments, saying that the intention of his bill was to make it easier for the state to benefit from the practice while curtailing abuses.
“This makes the process stronger,” Diegnan said. “This is not an attempt to in any way, shape or form stop the process, but just bring transparency to it.”