NJ: Civil forfeiture answer can’t be used against a criminal defendant under Garrity

A defendant’s answers in a civil forfeiture action cannot be introduced in a parallel criminal proceeding under the authority of Garrity v. New Jersey. Here, however, it proves to be harmless error. State v. Melendez, 2020 N.J. LEXIS 2 (Jan. 8, 2020). Syllabus by the court:

Under the reasoning of Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493, 87 S. Ct. 616, 17 L. Ed. 2d 562 (1967), a defendant’s statements in an answer to a civil forfeiture action cannot be introduced in a parallel criminal proceeding in the State’s case in chief. Like the Appellate Division, the Court finds the error was harmless in light of other strong evidence connecting defendant to the apartment. The Court also agrees that criminal defendants who have been served with civil forfeiture complaints are entitled to enhanced notice of certain issues. The Court outlines several points about notice and refers the matter to the Civil and Criminal Practice Committees for further review.

1. Civil forfeiture proceedings implicate a person’s due process rights and invoke certain protections that apply to criminal matters. The Court reviews the language and structure of the civil forfeiture statute and finds that they convey a straightforward meaning: anyone who seeks to claim property that is subject to forfeiture must file and serve a claim to the property “in the form of an answer,” and the answer must state the claimant’s “interest in the property.” N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3(d). If an answer is not timely filed, the property is forfeited. Id. at -3(e). If an answer is filed, the case proceeds in court. Id. at -3(f). In short, the statute requires a claimant to file an answer to defend against a forfeiture action. The last sentence in subsection (f) allows claimants to apply for a stay but does not provide for the filing of a stay motion alone; an answer must be filed first to assert a claim. (pp. 12-15)

2. The framework of the civil forfeiture statute raises concerns under the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Garrity, which reversed the convictions of officers who were given a choice “either to forfeit their jobs or to incriminate themselves” in the course of an investigation into their alleged misconduct. 385 U.S. at 497. The Court likened the practice to the interrogations it reviewed in Miranda and found the officers’ statements “were infected by … coercion.” Ibid. As a result, the Court held the statements were not voluntary and could not be admitted at a later criminal proceeding. Id. at 498, 500. (pp. 15-16)

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