State moves to make controversial civil forfeiture more transparent

Critics say civil forfeiture preys on poor communities of color

By: - April 6, 2022 6:44 am

The state Tuesday opened an online portal for prosecutors to report what law enforcement officers in their counties have seized from citizens. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

The state Attorney General’s Office inched toward making the controversial police practice of civil forfeiture more transparent.

The state opened an online portal Tuesday for prosecutors to report what law enforcement officers in their counties have seized from citizens, when and why they seized it, what it was worth, and how they spent the money it generated.

The information will be used to create a publicly accessible, searchable database, although it’s unclear when that database will be up and running.

The move comes more than two years after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law mandating public disclosures of civil forfeiture, a practice that allows officers to seize property and money if they suspect it was connected to a crime. The administration has blamed the delay in part on the public health emergency caused by the pandemic.

The Attorney General’s Office received $2.6 million in state funding to create and maintain the database, which will also include details on the race, ethnicity, and gender of citizens whose property was seized and the eventual outcome of any criminal charges filed against them.

The office also set up a system to enable officers to report forfeiture details directly and will alert agencies that fail to comply.

The practice has proven quite lucrative for law enforcement agencies. In New Jersey, authorities seized $166 million in cash and property from the public from 2009 to 2019, according to an October report by the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

That’s why reformers have called for civil forfeiture to be abolished, saying it creates a profit motive for police departments and consequently tends to be overused and abused, especially in poor communities of color.

Attorney Alexander Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey welcomed the state’s effort to be transparent but said it’s not enough.

“Transparency is necessary but not sufficient. It’s not a substitute for substantive reforms around it,” Shalom said. “Transparency will reveal some of the worst abuses in the civil asset forfeiture realm.”

Transparency, then, shouldn’t be the state’s only goal in creating the database, Shalom said.

“It’s great that the public can now see a spotlight on these things,” he said. “But we hope that the Attorney General’s Office will scrutinize it and take action when it sees practices that it thinks do not advance the interest of justice.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.