On January 8, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Hudson County case of State v. Luis Melendez. The principle issue under N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1 concerned the criminal admissibility of the defendant’s civil answer to a forfeiture complaint.
Chief Justice Rabner wrote for the Court in relevant part: Like the defendants in Garrity, claimants in a civil forfeiture action who are defendants in a parallel criminal case also face an untenable choice: to forfeit their property or incriminate themselves. To defend against a forfeiture complaint, claimants who are also criminal defendants must file an answer that states their interest in the property. In other words, to assert their constitutional right not to be deprived of property without due process, they have to link themselves to alleged contraband and give up their constitutional right against self-incrimination. Alternatively, they can refuse to answer and lose their property.
We need go no further than the reasoning in Garrity to find that a defendant’s choice to file an answer under those circumstances is not freely made. It is fraught with coercion. A criminal defendant’s statements in an answer to a civil forfeiture complaint thus cannot be considered voluntary. As a result, they cannot be introduced in the State’s direct case in a later criminal proceeding. See also United States v. U.S. Currency, 626 F.2d 11, 15-16 (6th Cir. 1980) (noting the tension claimants face between “incriminating themselves” or “failing to vigorously pursue their claims” to property, in the context of a forfeiture action filed under federal law, and remanding to the district court for “a solution which both protects the privilege and permits the forfeiture case to go forward”).
We need not decide in this appeal whether a defendant can be impeached if he testifies at a later criminal trial and contradicts statements he made in a forfeiture action. We note that a statement obtained through physical coercion cannot be used at trial. Miller v. Fenton, 474 U.S. 104, 109 (1985); Brown v. Mississippi, 286-87 (1936). The same principle applies to statements obtained through threats of physical violence. See Payne v. Arkansas (1958). A statement made under circumstances that violated the requirements of Miranda, however, can be used “for impeachment if the ‘trustworthiness of the evidence satisfies legal standards.'” Mincey v. Arizona (1978) (quoting Harris v. New York (1971)); see also Md. Code. Ann., Crim. Proc. § 12-313 (“Except for purposes of impeachment, a statement made by a person regarding ownership of seized property during the course of a forfeiture proceeding is not admissible in a related criminal prosecution.”).
Precedent supports the Court’s decision to not decide the constitutional issue regarding the use of forfeiture answers for impeachment purposes. Given how rare criminal jury trials are in general, it will likely be years before the issue presents itself.