New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Articles Posted in Forfeiture

Anyone with a narcotics-related case – regardless of how simple or complicated the facts may be – has been in this situation.  Defense counsel is able to negotiate an acceptable plea deal with the prosecutor which requires their client to, among other things, forfeit property seized at the time of arrest.  The property can be anything that was allegedly connected to the drug-related activities, but frequently includes cash and/or a vehicle.  The State obtains the property in one of two ways.  First, it can commence a civil forfeiture action with an eye toward obtaining a judgment that eliminates the defendant’s right in or to the property and turns it over to the State.  It can also require the defendant to execute a consent judgment at the time of the plea or sentencing.  Cash, which the State held in an account pending resolution of the criminal case, then becomes State property.

Vehicles and other items may be sold by the State.  Occasionally, if a car is deemed suitable, it may also be outfitted with the necessary equipment and then used by the police for law enforcement activities.  I have also had cases where the State allowed my client to “redeem” a vehicle.  This required my client to purchase their vehicle back from the State at fair market value.  Thus, the client or the vehicle’s owner effectively purchased their car a second time.  The fact that the car was financed and had a bank lien on it was irrelevant to any determination of the amount of money sought by the State.  As with forfeited cash, the proceeds of any vehicle sale or redemption go the State and, at least according to what we are told, are used to help finance law enforcement activities.

This is an issue of considerable magnitude since it goes directly to budget and funding decisions on every level of government. On February 20, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided Timbs v. Indiana, No. 17-1091.  This decision should have a dramatic effect on forfeiture proceedings that are related to criminal cases. Continue reading

In 1984, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (“CCCA”).  This law was passed at a time when crime rates, particularly drug-related crimes, were rising nationally.  The CCCA provided, in part, that law enforcement agencies could seize the overwhelming majority of assets of individuals suspected of criminal activity.  In fact, the CCCA allowed law enforcement to seize up to three times what they could seize from criminal suspects under then-existing state laws.  In 2014, the last year for which data is available, local police agencies seized about $4.5 billion in assets.  The majority of these assets were turned over to the federal government; however, the relatively small portion given back to local police departments subsidized about 20% of their budgets.  The CCCA also gave police departments something of a windfall that paid for equipment and the establishment of narcotics task forces.

It was later found that over the decade following its passage, the CCCA resulted in a decline in crime rates of about 17% in jurisdictions where it was applied.  Obviously, this was something that relatively few people would fault, particularly in light of the fact that the law grew from a perception that crime rates were out of control.  However, new information concerning the long-term effects of the CCCA – particularly the manner in which it influences law enforcement priorities – recently became available.  This material should be of interest to anyone who seriously tracks trends in law enforcement activities.

According to a recent study prepared by professors at Florida State University (“FSU”), the asset forfeiture system established by the CCCA has had unintended consequences over time.  First, it has apparently caused law enforcement to heavily target drug-related offenses.  It has also apparently motivated local police to focus their efforts in poorer urban areas where it is easier to make drug-related arrests that frequently result in the seizure of assets.  In some instances, the assets seized may amount only to a few hundred dollars.  It can, however, add up very quickly if enough people are arrested.  Continue reading