- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

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.
Mrs. 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 that are not free of "the taint of impermissible bias in enforcement of the laws."
"It was worth sticking it out," Mrs. Thomas said. "I got my car back, but maybe this will help somebody else."


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