FILE - NJ police 9-12-2020

Police officers are seen Sept. 12, 2020, during a political rally and counterprotest in Cresskill, New Jersey.

(The Center Square) – New Jersey legislators received a near-failing grade in a recent nationwide report that examined how each state addresses civil asset forfeiture laws.

The Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based public interest law firm, recently released its third edition of “Policing for Profit,” a document alleging unwarranted punitive policies through the civil asset forfeiture process across the U.S.

In New Jersey’s scorecard, which resulted in a grade of “D-,” IFJ researchers gave high marks for recent legislation that yielded “one of the best forfeiture transparency laws in the country,” according to the organization.

But IFJ researchers are dually calling on state lawmakers to make further reforms, including outright abolishment of civil forfeiture proceedings. Calls also are in place to direct any forfeiture proceeds to a non-law enforcement fund.

Civil forfeiture is in place in most states, as well as the federal government. It gives law enforcement officers the ability to take assets from people suspected of involvement in a crime or illegal activity, even if the owner of the property has not been formally charged with wrongdoing.

“The heart of the problem remains poor state and federal civil forfeiture laws, which are little improved since the previous edition of ‘Policing for Profit’ was published in 2015,” Lisa Knepper, senior director of strategic research with IFJ, said in a statement.

Knepper continued, “Most (states’) laws … still stack the deck against property owners and give law enforcement perverse financial incentives to pursue property over justice.”

In early 2020, New Jersey’s laws were changed when a pair of bills — A4970 and S3441 — were passed into law with Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.

The bills, which received bipartisan support in both chambers of the legislature, revised New Jersey’s procedures for certain asset forfeiture proceedings and now require criminal conviction for forfeiture of seized assets in a number of instances.

State Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, sponsored A4970. In a statement on his personal legislative website, Chiaravalloti detailed why he introduced the legislation in early 2019.

“The government cannot be allowed to seize property without due process,” Chiaravalloti wrote. “The way our current civil forfeiture system works is unconstitutional and vulnerable to potential abuses. I am excited that we are taking the issue seriously and legislating meaningful reform.”

According to the data within its report, IFJ officials said state and federal authorities have forfeited at least $68.8 billion in personal assets, based on information available, since 2000.

At least $349 million in asset forfeitures have generated revenue for law enforcement agencies across New Jersey within the past 20 years, according to IFJ’s analysis.

New Mexico received the highest grade – an “A” – in IFJ’s most recent report because of a 2015 reform within the state that eliminated civil forfeitures and directed all forfeiture proceeds to the state’s general fund.

In the 2020 report, IFJ officials attempted to poke holes in the methodology behind asset forfeitures, which law enforcement has cited as a means of deterring crime. In the years following the reforms, New Mexico’s crime rates remained steady.

“New Mexico’s experience shows that strong forfeiture reform does not sacrifice public safety, Jennifer McDonald, senior research analyst with IFJ, said in a statement.