The Supreme Court just ruled unanimously that the U.S. Constitution places limits on the ability of state and localities to seize and keep cash and other items like cars, houses, and private property used to commit crimes.
Civil forfeiture, as this practice is known, is a popular way to raise revenue for government agencies, but it can easily be abused. In many instances, the value of the property seized is out of proportion to the crime involved.
In New Jersey, the state or locality, can bring a civil action against your property, alleging that the property was involved in a crime. The State has the burden of proving that the property (or car, etc.) was used (or intended to be used) to facilitate a crime, or was an integral part of criminal activity, or was the proceeds of a crime (like cash); the criminal activity existed or was planned; and that there is a link between the property and the criminal activity. See N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1 and our prior blog post for more info on NJ’s Civil Forfeiture laws.
In this current Court’s case, a $42,000 Land Rover was seized by the state of Indiana after the owner sold a small amount of heroin to undercover cops for $400. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines does not apply to the states. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the Indiana Supreme Court.
The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars “excessive fines” and limits the ability of the federal government to seize property. This recent Court decision holds that this clause of the Eight Amendment also applies to the states under the 14th Amendment.
While this decision won’t end civil forfeitures, it will hopefully curtail its abuses.
Michael Raff, Esq.