There have been stories in the news recently about how the government – at both the New Jersey and federal levels – has been using asset forfeiture as a means of funding law enforcement activities. While this may not come as a surprise in cases where criminal defendants have been convicted of crimes and the assets seized represented their ill-gotten gains, the reality is that sometimes people are having their property taken away from them without a warrant requirement or even being charged with anything.
At the federal level, the government can seize property using a variety of means. It can do so administratively; it can do so through the criminal justice system; and it can do so in civil court actions. Civil asset forfeitures can be particularly pernicious, with more than $4 billion of property assets seized nationally in one year alone, and more than $2 billion in cash being seized from individuals who were never charged with a crime.
At the state level, although the New Jersey asset forfeiture law has been challenged on constitutional grounds, it remains on the books. The invasive nature of this law can be illustrated by considering its relevant jury instructions, which include passages like the following:
“…The basis of the forfeiture is the misuse of the property rather than the crime that may have been committed by the owner or user… The fact that a claimant was not charged in a criminal complaint with a crime or was acquitted of a crime is irrelevant to your determination of whether forfeiture is appropriate in this case. It is also irrelevant that the claimant did not take part in the criminal activity.” [emphasis added]
The bottom line is, if you have had your property seized by either the federal government or that of New Jersey, even if you have not engaged in any criminal conduct, you may face a fight to get your property back. Regardless of whether you are facing criminal charges, in such an event you should retain legal counsel experienced with both federal and state-level criminal defense to ensure that your legal rights are protected as thoroughly as possible.
Source: FOX Business, “When Can the U.S. Take Your Cash or Property?”, Sept. 14, 2015