New Jersey is bringing transparency to law enforcement’s practice of confiscating private property it believes may be connected to illegal activity.
Through asset forfeiture, police can seize cash and property -- and sometimes not return it -- regardless if there were arrests or convictions. That has led to allegations of abuse and demands for more information about what police are taking and why.
A 2020 law signed by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy mandates that prosecutors report to the Attorney General the description, monetary value, and alleged criminal violation associated with all such seizures. Police also must report whether charges were filed and if the defendant has been convicted.
In compliance with that law, Acting Attorney General Matt Platkin announced Wednesday that a new online portal is launching in which county prosecutors will report forfeitures in a searchable online tracking system. The database requires information on whether anyone whose property was taken was ultimately charged and convicted of a crime, and the monetary value of what was seized. Given that Black and Latinx New Jerseyans were found to be disproportionately affected by this practice, demographic information about who police took property from will also be in the online portal.
Nationally, cash and property worth billions are seized by police each year, according to the nonprofit law firm Institute of Justice, and some of that money is used to support police budgets. In New Jersey, between 2009 and 2019 police in the state collected $166 million, according to an advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Under the law, police in New Jersey can seize property valued less than $10,000 and cash less than $1,000.
The Office of Attorney General is spending $2.6 million on the forfeiture module, and is conducting 80 trainings around the state on how to use it.
"The Division of Criminal Justice is committed to ensuring the civil rights and liberties of residents are protected," said Lyndsay Ruotolo, director of the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice, in a statement. "This portal will help increase confidence in New Jersey’s justice system by ensuring comprehensive reporting on civil forfeiture is tracked and accessible to the public."