Civil asset forfeiture is the bizarre American practice of seizing peoples' property without charging its owner: instead the property is charged with being the ill-gotten gains of a crime, and if the owner doesn't pay their property's legal bills, the police get to keep or sell the property.
Asset forfeiture has been on the ropes for the past couple years, as Congress defunded a DoJ program that helped small-town (and big city) cops figure out how to pad their budgets through forfeiture; states got in on the game, putting limits on forfeiture or banning it altogether.
Not New Jersey, though, thanks to Governor Chris Christie. After both houses of the NJ legislature passed a modest forfeiture reform that would require Jersey cops to submit an annual report to the NJ Attorney General listing which goods had been seized, Christie vetoed it, stating the suppressing public disclosure of seizures was necessary to "protect law enforcement operations and personnel."
Christie is singing from the Trump hymnal here: last week, the president stated that he wanted to strip transparency requirements and due process limits on forfeiture programs, allowing the police to seize virtually anything from anyone without having to show evidence (or give it back).
This information would have provided the public with valuable insight into state law enforcement's use of asset forfeiture. And there are several reasons law enforcement wouldn't want to have to turn over these details. The dirty secret of asset forfeiture is that it's not being used to take down the biggest and baddest criminals. It's far more frequently used to nickle-and-dime average citizens, with a majority of an agency's take being made up of seizures valued at well below $10,000. Vehicles are seized from grandmothers because their grandchildren drove drunk. Any cash on anyone who smells like marijuana to a police officer usually ends up being forfeited even if the person is free to go.
These details would have made the state's asset forfeiture programs looks exactly as bad as they are. New Jersey holds a D rating from the Institute for Justice, which performs annual reviews of states' forfeiture programs, rating them for damage done to citizens' rights and property. One of the aspects of forfeiture that aided in the state's D rating is the lack of transparency and almost-nonexistent reporting requirements.
(Image: Michael Vadon, CC-BY-SA)