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Group says Latinos unfairly targeted for asset seizures in Bergen County

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A civil rights group is claiming that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has been seizing assets from Latino defendants in “grossly disproportionate” amounts.

The Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey is asking acting state Attorney General John J. Hoffman to review Prosecutor John L. Molinelli’s civil forfeiture program, which it says has “incentivized” local police departments to participate.

By doing so, its says, the prosecutor has accelerated the number of convicted or accused Latino defendants who’ve had their cash, cars, homes and other property seized.

CLIFFVIEW PILOT emailed Molinelli a copy of the letter this morning. He asked for time to review it before commenting.

The LLANJ “does not send me those things — only the press,” the prosecutor explained.

The alliance, which has been monitoring arrests, traffic stops, searches and other law enforcement activity in Bergen County for several years, has repeatedly clashed with Molinelli.

One time involved the shooting of a man who came at police with tools in each hand after he fled Garfield police headquarters and was chased to a nearby garage. Another involved the shooting of a man in Leonia after he lunged at officers with a knife.

The numbers that the group provided Hoffman aren’t exact.

Molinelli, whose office repeatedly has the highest dollar amount of civil forfeitures in the state, doesn’t track the race or ethnicity of those who are arrested or subject to civil forfeiture — and doesn’t require local police departments to do so, either, the alliance said.

“Hispanics are recorded typically as ‘white’ in official records (i.e. arrest or use of force incidents) we resorted to the use of surnames to determine Hispanic ancestry of subjects,” wrote Richard Rivera, a former West New York police officer who serves as chair of the LLANJ’s executive committee. “This is acceptable methodology using U.S. Census material that has withstood court scrutiny.”

As a result, Rivera said, the alliance determined that Latinos comprised 46.5% of those who had their assets seized by Molinelli’s office from 2009 through 2013.

The percentage last year was 64.2%, he claims.

Census figures put Hispanics at 16.8% of the county’s population.

The alliance broke down 2013 asset seizures by town, as well.

Latinos represented all of the seizures in Upper Saddle River, Oakland and Westwood last year, the letter says. They make up 4.3% of the population in Upper Saddle River, 5.3% of the population in Oakland, and 11.6% of the population in Westwood, it says.

Of all of the New Jersey State Police’s civil forfeitures in Bergen County last year, 80% involved Latinos, Rivera’s letter says. The figure was 40% for the Palisades Interstate Parkway police, according to the alliance’s accounting.

SEE CHART, BELOW

Several agencies participated in a county-wide heroin sweep last year, leading to 325 arrests, the group noted.

“We are concerned that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office has incentivized county task force participation by offering stipends for personnel and equipment to local police agencies using seized asset funding and by also sharing that funding through other distribution systems,” Rivera wrote to Hoffman, the acting state attorney general.

“We trust that your inquiry into our allegation, that a misguided incentivized forfeiture program is in place, should be impartial, thorough and timely,” he concluded. “The results and findings should be shared publicly and inform the modification or development of policies, practices and procedures that will reform improper practices and monitor and track activities to deter recurrence of this type of activity.”

Rivera retired on a disability pension after four years as a West New York cop as part of a settlement after he was terminated on charges of writing a swastika on a test booklet.

Rivera contended that the West New York charges, while true, were brought in retaliation for his cooperation with the FBI in a corruption probe. He said that he drew the symbol after learning that it once represented peace in the Hindu culture.

A state court rejected Rivera’s bid to rejoin the department, citing a $675,000 settlement in which he agreed not to seek reinstatement there.

Molinelli has characterized Rivera, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress as an independent against Bob Menendez in 1998, as a “self described public advocate for police affairs and police brutality issues.”

This came after both Rivera and Reyes were briefly arrested after showing up unannounced at the prosecutor’s office and refusing to leave. Charges were later dismissed.

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