Understanding Civil Forfeiture in New Jersey
Civil forfeiture is a potentially life-altering consequence of being charged with a criminal offense in New Jersey. It applies to any piece of property the defendant owns that was either used in the commission of a crime or was purchased with the proceeds from a crime. The prosecutor will then file a civil forfeiture action for the property—a house, car, boat—to be forfeited to the State.
If property was, for example, used for prostitution or gambling and the owner of the home is arrested for the crime, then the home can be seized as part of the case. If a car or a boat are used to transport drugs, illegal weapons or other controlled or unlawful items, that too can be seized.
Therefore, civil forfeiture applies if the defendant has either purchased the items or property with ill-gotten funds or if the property was directly used for the crimes to be committed.
What Property is Subject to Seizure Under the New Jersey Forfeiture Law?
The New Jersey forfeiture law (N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1) states that the following classes of property are subject to seizure:
- Any proceeds from an illegal activity, such as cash from drug dealing
- Property that is integral to the illegal acts, like money financing illegal gambling
- Property used in committing a crime, such as an automobile used to transport illegal drugs
If the property is not illegal in and of itself—unlike dangerous controlled substances, illegal firearms, illegal devices used for gambling—the State has 90 days to file a civil lawsuit detailing why the item is considered contraband or was linked to a crime. The lawsuit is intended to take permanent possession of the property. The burden of proof is on the State and they must establish the connection between the defendant and the criminal act. There must also be more than a casual connection. The criminal activity and the property must be dependent on one another.
In the event that there is a third party holding a security interest in the property (i.e. a loan, credit or lease), it is typical that the civil forfeiture action is defeated. Also, if the owner of the property was not involved or aware in the criminal act, he or she cannot be reasonably held responsible for it or expected to prevent it.
Is There a Difference Between the Civil Forfeiture Case and the Underlying Criminal Case?
The civil forfeiture is overseen by a civil judge and not a criminal one. In general, the suspect is arrested and the property is seized simultaneously. One prosecutor will prepare the criminal case while a different prosecutor will work on the civil case. There is usually a coordination between the prosecutors to keep aware of the status of each. Since the cases are connected, the defense attorney hired by the defendant will handle both aspects of the case, criminal and civil. This is important because if there are different attorneys defending the two portions of the case, one can negatively affect the other. For example, if the defendant is acquitted, that doesn't mean the civil case is over and his or her property is returned.
Contact an Attorney to Help with Your Civil Forfeiture Case
In the event of a civil forfeiture of your property, it is important to have an attorney that is experienced in both criminal and civil matters and can handle both at the same time. The law firm of Villani & DeLuca in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey has knowledgeable and experienced attorneys to assist you or a loved in both the criminal and civil cases.
Being accused of a crime is a trying and difficult experience, but when that is compounded by property being seized and made the subject of a civil lawsuit, matters are even more burdensome. In New Jersey, whether you're from Toms River, Long Branch, or anywhere in the state, you have rights and they apply to both the criminal and civil sections of the law. Sometimes the civil case can be negotiated and settled just as a criminal case can be plea bargained. It is imperative that you hire an attorney who is aware of the various strategies of prosecutors around New Jersey and how to combat a civil forfeiture.
If you're in need of an attorney due to a civil forfeiture, call Villani & DeLuca today.