Newsbrief: Asset Forfeiture Unconstitutional in New Jersey 12/20/02

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A New Jersey judge threw out the state's asset forfeiture law on December 11, ruling that it created an unconstitutional bias in law enforcement. Under the law, New Jersey police and prosecutors were entitled to keep cash and assets seized from alleged criminals -- a practice widely criticized as bounty hunting.

The ruling came in the case of State of New Jersey vs. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird, a car belonging to a deputy sheriff but seized by police after the deputy's 17-year-old son was arrested on a marijuana charge.

Police moved to seize the vehicle even though no drugs were found in it and it wasn't actually used in drug deals. The deputy, Carol Thomas, successfully sued for the car's return, then sued again to challenge the constitutionality of the state's asset forfeiture laws.

"The decision will ensure that police and prosecutors make decisions on the basis of justice, not on the potential for profit," attorney Scott Bullock of the DC-based Institute for Justice, who represented Thomas, told the Associated Press.

The judge found that the New Jersey statute gave law enforcement agencies a financial interest in pursuing certain investigations, a practice not free of "the taint of impermissible bias in law enforcement." New Jersey law enforcement agencies were the beneficiaries of nearly $32 million in asset forfeiture revenues from 1998 to 2000. Attorneys for the state said they plan to appeal.

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