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New Jersey High Court Restricts Asset Forfeiture


July-August 1998

On July 15, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that suspects are entitled to jury trials before the state can confiscate cars from them (State v. One 1990 Honda Accord, July 15, 1998, 154 N.J. 373 SC 1998) (Associated Press, "Court restricts seizure of cars," Home News & Tribune (East Brunswick), July 16, 1998, p. 1A).

The decision came in a case in which prosecutors seized a car from a widow, Lois McDermott, because her drug-dealing son used the car without her permission. The court ruled that McDermott is entitled to a trial by jury to determine if the state can seize her property.

"Doubtless, the right to trial by jury will be an inconvenience to the state when it seeks to forfeit ... property," the court said in an opinion by Justice Stewart Pollock. "Mere convenience, however, does not justify the denial of a constitutional right." Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz is a former state attorney general.

New Jersey Attorney General Peter G. Verniero said the decision will weaken "a vitally important tool in [law enforcement's] ongoing war against illicit drugs." He said jury trials will bog down the forfeiture process. "The risk of swift and sure forfeiture sends a strong message of deterrence to would-be criminals that we will seize the profits from drug dealing." Roger Shatzkin, spokesperson for Verniero, said the attorney general will have to ask the court to clarify the decision to see if covers other property, such as houses, and past confiscations.

Attorney General Peter Verniero - Office of the Attorney General, Department of Law and Safety, P.O. Box 080, Trenton, NJ 08625, Tel: (609) 292-4925, Fax: (609) 292-3508.