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Legal Services of New Jersey  Legal Services of New Jersey

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Your Rights in Civil Forfeiture Proceedings

Were you arrested? Were you served with a civil forfeiture complaint? This means the State of New Jersey wants to keep some of the property they took during your arrest because they feel it may be contraband.

There are several types of contraband:

  • Prima facie contraband may include illegal drugs, weapons, stolen property, and other items that are illegal to own or use. The State does not have to file a forfeiture complaint to confiscate prima facie contraband.
  • Derivative contraband may include items not necessarily illegal, but items the State may believe are connected to unlawful activity. This may be cash, a car, a truck, or other belongings that were seized at the time of your arrest.

Forfeiture Complaint

If your property is seized and declared derivative contraband, the State will serve you with a forfeiture complaint. The complaint, which seeks possession of the property, names you as either an owner or someone with interest.

You will need to respond to the complaint by filing an answer within 35 days and sending a copy to the county prosecutor. The NJ Judiciary website has forms you can use to help you answer the complaint.

The State must serve you with the complaint within 90 days of the seizure. If you are not served within 90 days and you experience some type of prejudice or harm caused by the delay, you may ask the court to dismiss the complaint.

Your Hearing

After you answer the complaint, the court will set a trial date. The State has the burden to prove its case. You may present evidence and call witnesses in your defense at that time.

To defend your property from forfeiture, you will need to show that your property was not:

  • Used or intended to be used for an unlawful activity;
  • An integral part or intended to become part of an illegal activity; or
  • Proceeds of an illegal activity.

If you owned seized property and you were unaware of any illegal activity and took no role in it, the State may find you to be an “innocent owner” and your property may not be subject to seizure. Also, the State cannot confiscate property it found as the result of an illegal search. (See Routine Automobile Consent Searches are Illegal in New Jersey​​.)

The State’s Burden

To win the case against you, the State must prove there was an underlying illegal activity. This means that there was a “crime,” not merely a disorderly person’s offense or violation. It must also prove a “direct causal relationship” between the illegal activity and your property.

There must be some evidence tying your property to a specific crime committed or planned. Simply having in your possession money that may likely be used in a drug transaction in the future is not enough. Also, the fact that a vehicle was used in an illegal activity does not necessarily require forfeiture of its contents.

The State may hold seized property if it is using the property as evidence in a criminal prosecution.

Even if the State proves a connection between the illegal activity and the property, you may provide evidence that some portion of the money (or property) was intended for legal purposes to prevent that portion from seizure.

As in all civil proceedings, you also have the right to request discovery, file appropriate motions, and to request a jury trial.

Speak to a Lawyer

Civil forfeiture proceedings are complicated. It is best to speak with a lawyer if civil forfeiture proceedings have been started against you.​​​

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