12/19/2016 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 12/19/2016 17:34
Assembly Republican Press Release - The General Assembly today approved legislation, sponsored by Assemblymen Jay Webber, Declan O'Scanlon and Anthony M. Bucco, that increases transparency for seized assets connected with criminal activity by a 77-0 vote today. Law enforcement agencies have been criticized nationally for relying on forfeiture funds to bolster their budgets.
'Opening up the books is the best way to gain the public's confidence,' said Webber (R-Morris). 'If property is used in a crime, law enforcement should be able to seize it, but the public deserves a full accounting. When homes, cars, money, and other property worth millions of dollars are seized every year from citizens, there must be adequate controls in place to prevent abuses. Greater transparency and accountability will help curb potential excesses.'
State agencies are not statutorily required to track or report forfeitures, however, the official policy of the Division of Criminal Justice is that county district attorneys and local police departments report all forfeitures to the attorney general on a quarterly basis. The Webber-O'Scanlon-Bucco bill (A2771) requires the attorney general to annually report to the Legislature on how those assets are collected and used.
'For anyone trying to study it, one of the most aggravating aspects of civil asset forfeiture is just how little information is public about the amount of property police departments seize, who they seize it from, and where all that revenue goes,' said O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth). 'Accountability is only possible with accurate information from prosecutors who are confiscating and disposing of assets in their pursuit of criminals.'
State law prohibits police departments from paying salaries and operational expenses with forfeiture money or considering it when drafting budgets. But they can use forfeiture funds to make equipment upgrades, provide additional training for their officers or pay for community programs.
'It is vital to maintain the public's trust when law enforcement rightfully utilizes the forfeiture process.' said Bucco (R-Morris). 'Forfeiture is a strong deterrent to crime, and the proceeds can help boost crime-fighting capabilities. Regular reporting from the attorney general's office, however, is needed to help ensure that the forfeiture laws are being followed and there is transparency for the public.'
County prosecutors across the state collected $72 million in forfeiture proceeds from 2009 to 2013, including more than $57 million in cash and $9 million for vehicles, according to a 2015 report by the Institute for Justice. That total did not include forfeitures by municipalities and the state.
The attorney general's office used $2.5 million from forfeiture to fund body cameras for local police departments in 2015, and in the past has used such funds to pay for gun buyback programs in cities around the state.top
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