Chris Christie Says Asset Forfeiture Transparency Is Bad For Law Enforcement, Vetoes Unanimously-Supported Bill

Tech Dirt – by Tim Cushing

Part of the reason asset forfeiture is such a problem is the lack of transparency. The funds obtained through this process are frequently hidden from the public and used to purchase everything from margarita makers to Stingray devices. The procedure through which the government takes control of citizens’ assets is also shrouded in secrecy. Cases are filed against property, not the persons formerly in possession of them. The process for retrieval is purposely impenetrable, designed to make it almost impossible for petitioners to reclaim their assets.  

Law enforcement officials claim that all parts of this opaque process are there to prevent drug dealing and/or terrorism, hence their reluctance to divulge the inner details of this particular mean/method. Legislators in New Jersey were hoping to end this unofficial tradition with a bill that would have demanded far more transparency from agencies involved in asset forfeiture.

S2267 passed with unanimous support in both houses of the State legislature and would have instituted the following information be submitted to the state Attorney General’s office every year.

[I]nformation on the seizure of the property, including a description of the seized property; the date of seizure ; the market value of the seized property; the alleged criminal offense associated with the seizure; a description of the location at which the property was seized, including whether the property was seized from a private residence or business or during a traffic stop; if the property was seized during a traffic stop, the name of the highway, street, or road on which the property was seized and whether the vehicle was traveling northbound, southbound, eastbound or westbound;

   (2)   the disposition of any criminal action related to the seizure;

   (3)   information on forfeiture of the seized property, including:

   (a)   whether the forfeiture involved prima facie contraband or was enforced by civil action pursuant to N.J.S.2C:64-1 et seq., the forfeiture was a result of racketeering activity pursuant to N.J.S.2C:41-1 et seq., or the forfeited funds or property were obtained from an action involving financial facilitation of a crime pursuant to P.L.1994, c.121 (C.2C:21-23 et seq.); and

   (b)   whether a person with a property interest in the seized property was represented by counsel at the forfeiture proceeding, if applicable;

   (4)   information on the final disposition of the seized property, including whether the property was returned to the owner, destroyed, sold after forfeiture, or retained after forfeiture; and the date of disposition;

   (5)   information on the value of 1the1 forfeited property, including the gross amount received from 1the1 forfeiture, the total expenses deducted as part of the forfeiture action, and the net amount received from the forfeiture;

   (6)   whether the forfeiture resulted from an adoptive seizure; and

   (7)   any other information the Attorney General requires.

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.

County prosecutors across the state collected $72 million in forfeiture proceeds from 2009 to 2013, including more than $57 million in cash and vehicles worth $9 million, according to the report.

In addition, the report found county agencies received an average of $7 million a year from federal “equitable sharing” programs that give state and local agencies a cut when they serve on federal task forces.

But the millions tallied by the institute “are a vast undercount for what’s going on in New Jersey,” according to Dick Carpenter, the group’s director of strategic research and one of the authors of the report.

Carpenter said it’s difficult to get the whole picture in New Jersey because while the state does collect some data, it was not able to provide the group with comprehensive figures for local and state law enforcement agencies.

“The transparency in New Jersey is pretty poor,” he said. “The ability for average folks — or even elected officials — to know what’s going on in their state or municipality just isn’t there.”

None of this matters now, at least not for the foreseeable future. Governor Chris Christie has decided the public isn’t on the “need to know” list as far as asset forfeiture is concerned.

Gov. Chris Christie on Monday vetoed a bill that would have required county and state prosecutors to publish information about how they use civil courts to seize property from criminal investigations.

In order to fend off any attempts at a veto override, Christie has proposed his own law enforcement-friendly “fixes” to the rejected legislation.

Christie instead recommended a quarterly report in which prosecutors identify seized assets and detail the legal proceedings by which they were seized.

Under Christie’s proposal, prosecutors also would not have to disclose why they seized an asset or for what purpose it would be used.

Christie’s “compromise” does nothing. Quarterly reports are already filed with the attorney general, but they’re withheld from the public. The details included are minimal and provide no useful insight into law enforcement’s forfeiture activities. And it’s not as though the AG’s office goes after agencies for incomplete or nonexistent reporting. There appears to be no consequences for agencies that fail to comply with these minimal reporting requirements.

Of course, Christie’s “compromise” is predicated on a ridiculous pretense.

The governor said his proposed changes would “strike a balance between government transparency and protecting law enforcement operations and personnel.”

Protect law enforcement from what exactly? Transparency? Accountability? Criticism? There’s nothing in the information the bill demanded that would make it anything more dangerous for law enforcement. It might inform the public where law enforcement likes to go diving for dollars, but the only negative thing likely to happen to law enforcement is an increase in informed criticism.

In Christie’s mouth, the words “government transparency” are meaningless — as meaningless in his buzzword jumbling, bootlicking excuse for kicking the legislature’s unanimously-supported bill to the curb.

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