When a Jersey City man named Jermaine Mitchell was arrested on drug charges in April, he had $171 in his pocket. The police took all of it.
Their rationale was sadly unsurprising: Mitchell was yet another another victim of civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement practice so prevalent that it allowed federal agents (let alone local cops) to take more money and other property from Americans than actual burglars in 2014.
Though Mitchell was charged with a crime, many victims of civil asset forfeiture never are — and in fact, those police officers probably would have taken his $171 even if they didn’t have enough evidence on Mitchell himself to make an arrest.
That’s because civil asset forfeiture is when law enforcement (local, state, or federal — it happens at all levels) takes your money or stuff on the grounds that they find you (or maybe your friend or relative) suspicious. And once your property has been confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t get it from any criminal activity.
The cops don’t have to charge you. They don’t have to present any evidence of illegal activity. In fact, you have no right to a lawyer and won’t get a day in court. In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay big money just to be able to contest the seizure, let alone to be certain your property will be returned.
That’s what happened in Mitchell’s case. A month after his arrest, he got a letter saying he could contest the seizure in court. The only catch was a he’d have to pay a filing fee…of $175, more than the money he’s trying to get back.
There’s no way he can win here, even if he’s found innocent in his criminal case.
Hudson County, the jurisdiction where this happened, is apparently notorious for pulling this crap. According to the civil liberties lawyer fighting Mitchell’s case on his behalf, the county has already seized money from 500 people in 2016, and almost half of them lost less than $175, which makes contesting the seizure more trouble than it’s worth.
It’s basically free money for county government, an invisible tax local politicians never have to mention to voters.
Hudson County’s scheme gets more crooked still, as this report from NJ.com explains:
What makes Hudson County’s approach peculiar is that New Jersey’s court system has different fee scales depending on the venue in which a case is heard and the amount of money at stake. Typically, according to the ACLU, a defendant like Mitchell would have to pay a $15 filing fee to try to recover their seized assets in civil court, and prosecutors would have to fight unrelated cases out one by one.
But in Mitchell’s case, prosecutors collected enough defendants to file a single civil action for assets valued at more than $15,000, including just over $10,000 in cash and a red 1991 Chevrolet Camaro, records show. That kicked the case up out of the Special Civil Part, which handles litigation involving smaller claims, and into regular civil court where the fees, and the stakes, are higher.
The ACLU says this strategy appears to be unique to Hudson County, and several defense attorneys and current and former prosecutors surveyed by NJ Advance Media this week had never heard of such a practice before.
This group of defendants has nothing in common — no one is suggesting they’re in one big conspiracy together — except that Hudson County wants to keep their money or property, so it’s playing games with these people’s lives.
This is legalized theft at its most blatant, and it hits poor people the hardest. Joseph Russo, a deputy public defender in Hudson County, summed up the injustice of this situation well. “Our poor clients are placed between a rock and a hard place,” he said, as “one constitutional right [has] to be surrendered in order to assert another.”