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    10 Sep 2016

    Cops Seize $171 During Arrest, Court Wants $175 To Get It Back

    What does it mean for the future of the Fourth Amendment when it costs $175 in court fees to get back $171 that was seized during an arrest? This is the unusual scenario that Hudson County resident Jermaine Mitchell found himself facing following an April drug arrest in Jersey City, and is one reason why the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has thrown down the legal gauntlet regarding the county's civil asset forfeiture practices.
    On Thursday, the ACLU-NJ filed an appeal in New Jersey Appellate Court on Mitchell’s behalf, arguing that the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office unlawfully combines unrelated civil asset forfeiture cases together, resulting in court fees that often exceed the value of the property taken.
    "Almost no one is going to spend more money to get property back than what that property is worth," ACLU-NJ Staff Attorney Rebecca Livengood asserted. "Based on even the slightest suspicion of involvement in a crime, the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office can take a person's property and slam the door on any attempts to get it back."
    In Mitchell’s case, the Hudson County Prosecutor combined 20 different defendants into one court case, even though each person's seizure had nothing to do with any others, the ACLU-NJ stated.
    “By combining multiple forfeitures into one lawsuit, the county meets the $15,000 requirement to bring a case in the Law Division of Superior Court rather than the Special Civil Part, a court established to hear smaller controversies,” the nonprofit advocacy group stated. “While the Special Civil Part imposes much lower fees to respond, the Law Division sets a fixed fee of $175.”
    No other county in New Jersey currently engages in such a practice, the ACLU-NJ claimed.
    Mitchell’s attempts to get his $171 back hit another wall when authorities gave him a list of 11 supposed options for “low-cost legal representation” that could help him challenge the forfeiture, but not a single organization was able to provide adequate assistance, the ACLU-NJ stated. 
    In a news release, the group alleged that “Hudson County has the highest number of civil asset forfeitures in New Jersey by far.”
    Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez told NJ.com that her office is "acting properly" and pointed out that a Superior Court judge has upheld the practice.
    "Proceeds from any criminal activity are often utilized by defendants to purchase goods which are used to facilitate future crimes," Suarez told NJ.com. "The HCPO will continue to take all lawful action to ensure that crime in our county does not pay and that any proceeds of a crime are removed from the hands of the criminals and used for a lawful public purpose."

    But if the ACLU’s statements are any indication of actions to come, prosecutors may be in for a fight.
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