Judge Orders Middlesex County to Release Civil Forfeiture Records in ACLU-NJ Suit

Middlesex demanded fee of about $725 for records all other NJ counties turned over about property seized by law enforcement

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
February 27, 2017 9:45 am

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NEW BRUNSWICK – The ACLU of New Jersey won a victory today when a Superior Court judge ruled that Middlesex County violated state transparency law when it imposed a $725.85 service fee for access to public records on civil asset forfeiture.

The ACLU-NJ asked for records from each county to learn how much property each had seized through civil asset forfeiture. Every county but Middlesex released the records to the ACLU-NJ.

“The combination of civil asset forfeiture and criminal charges can be financially devastating,” said ACLU-NJ Attorney Iris Bromberg. “The public deserves to know how much property local government seizes from our neighborhoods.”

Civil asset forfeiture, or policing for profit, is a process to take cash or property that law enforcement suspects is related to criminal activity. Even if no one is ultimately charged, law enforcement can seize property. This practice disproportionately harms communities of color and preys on poor communities.

In September, the ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit against Hudson County for egregious abuse of civil asset forfeiture. Jermaine Mitchell, the ACLU-NJ’s client, would have had to pay a $175 fee to even attempt to get his seized money back — even though the amount taken was $171.

“We are the people our local government serves, and we deserve to understand what they’re doing in our name,” said ACLU-NJ Attorney Rebecca Livengood, who represents Jermaine Mitchell.

Superior Court Judge Travis Francis today ruled that the exorbitant fees imposed by Middlesex County were unwarranted under the law, as suggested by the other 20 counties’ compliance with the ACLU-NJ’s request. Middlesex County said it needed to charge a special service fee to redact versions maintained by the judiciary. The ACLU-NJ argued that Middlesex County’s redactions were only necessary because of the county’s record maintenance practices.

Judge Francis said it would not be a “Herculean effort” for Middlesex County to produce the documents and ruled that the county must release the records without imposing the special service fee.

Read the brief (PDF) and reply brief (PDF) in the case, captioned ACLU-NJ v. Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, and details about Jermaine Mitchell’s case against Hudson County online.

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