Pubdate: Fri, 13 Dec 2002
Source: Salina Journal, The (KS)
Copyright: 2002 -- The Salina Journal
Author: John Curran, Associated Press Writer


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) -- A judge has ruled that New Jersey's practice of 
letting police and prosecutors keep the money and assets they seize is 
unconstitutional, putting a halt -- for now -- to a system criticized as 
bounty hunting.

The practice gives law enforcement a stake in the cash, cars, computers and 
other property seized from criminals and suspects.

"The decision will ensure that police and prosecutors make decisions on the 
basis of justice, not on the potential for profit," said lawyer Scott 
Bullock, who represented a former sheriff's deputy whose son was caught 
selling marijuana out of her car.

The state plans to appeal Wednesday's ruling and ask the judge to allow the 
continued distribution of seized assets, which amounted to nearly $32 
million in a two-year period ending in 2000.

"Civil and criminal forfeiture is a legitimate law enforcement tool that 
allows police and prosecutors to take the profit out of crime," said John 
Hagerty, a spokesman for the state Division of Criminal Justice.

Carol Thomas, 45, who was never charged, said she didn't know her 
17-year-old son had used her car to drive to drug deals. He pleaded guilty 
and was sentenced to house arrest.

But the state filed a complaint against the car (State of New Jersey v. One 
1990 Ford Thunderbird) and seized it, even though no drugs were found in it 
and it wasn't actually used in the deals.

Thomas sued to get it back and after it was returned, she sued the state, 
challenging the constitutionality of civil forfeiture statutes.

The judge ruled the seizures give law enforcement financial interests which 
are not free of "the taint of impermissible bias in enforcement of the laws."

"It was worth sticking it out," Thomas said. "I got my car back, but maybe 
this will help somebody else."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom