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Seneca v. Bissell

Decided: July 20, 1994.


Before Judges Michels and Kestin.

Per Curiam

Per Curiam.

Plaintiff Jack Seneca appeals from a summary judgment of the Law Division entered in favor of defendant Somerset County Prosecutor Nicholas L. Bissell, Jr., dismissing this action seeking the return of $5,529 in United States currency seized by defendant on the ground that the action was time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations contained in N.J.S.A. 2C:64-8 of the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (Code). In granting summary judgment, Judge Arnold reasoned:

The plaintiffs instituted this suit which is a suit for replevin on July 21, 1993 which, of course, is more than 5 years after the seizure.

There is no dispute that the plaintiff signed a so-called assignment of interest in the subject $5,529 on May 25, 1988, also more than 5 years ago. It's clear beyond dispute that the plaintiff was very well aware that they took his $5,529, and that they had it, meaning the prosecutor's Office, the police.

Thus plaintiff does not come under the purview of [N.J.S.A.] 2C:64-8 as a person "who could not with due diligence have discovered that the property which he owned was seized as contraband." Moreover, the monies were forfeited to the State pursuant to [N.J.S.A.] 2C:64-3a by virtue of the fact that the plaintiff signed the assignment of interest within 90 days of the seizure, and the monies would come under the category of "other than prima facie contraband." See N.J.S.A. 2C:64-1a(1).

As such, since the only claim plaintiff appears to make is that the assignment of interest was obtained by coercion, as this Court views it under the standards set forth in Judson versus People's Bank and Trust Company, these are insufficient. They don't survive the Statute of Limitations, and so the defendant's motion for summary judgment to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint is granted.

Plaintiffs seeks a reversal and a remand for a trial on all issues, contending generally that the three-year statute of limitations of N.J.S.A. 2C:64-8 did not apply to bar this action because the money seized by defendant was not prima facie contraband and the State had not instituted a forfeiture proceeding pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3. Plaintiff argues, therefore, that the six-year statute of limitations applicable to ordinary replevin actions should apply. We disagree and affirm.

We are satisfied that the execution of the Assignment of Interest Agreement by plaintiff, which assigned his interest in the money seized by defendant, was the functional equivalent of a civil forfeiture proceeding under N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3. The agreement provided:

I, Jack Seneca, assign all of my interest in the $5,529.00 seized from my person in Greenbrook Township on April 26, 1987. This is in consideration of the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office forebearing its right to prosecute a forfeiture claim.

The execution of this agreement by plaintiff obviated the need for the institution of a formal civil forfeiture proceeding by defendant, and estops plaintiff from now arguing that the assignment of his ownership interest in the money was not the functional equivalent of a civil forfeiture proceeding under the Code.

The three-year period of limitations provided by N.J.S.A. 2C:64-8, governing actions to recover property seized by the State, applies to "any person who could not with due diligence have discovered that property which he owns was seized as contraband." This limitation, when read literally, does not apply to persons with notice of the seizure because generally those persons "have the opportunity to make their claims by filing answers in the forfeiture action" brought by the State. Dragutsky v. Tate, 262 N.J. Super. 257, 262, 620 A.2d 1065 (App. Div. 1993). Logically, a person who has signed over his interest in property should have no greater right to challenge the transfer or assignment of that property to the State than one who has received notice of a forfeiture proceeding. In the absence of an opportunity to defend in a formal civil forfeiture proceeding brought by the State within the ninety days required by the statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:64-3a, an individual who wishes to challenge the seizure must file his cause of action within a reasonable time. Here, plaintiff's money was seized, together with certain personal items and "substances believed to be cocaine or crack" on April 23, 1988. Plaintiff did not challenge the seizure of his money or other items, nor did he make any attempt to recover the money until July of 1993 when he filed the complaint in this action. At the time this proceeding was instituted, more than five years had elapsed since the money had been seized.

In our view, it would offend the spirit of N.J.S.A. 2C:64-8, as well as the clear legislative design of the Forfeiture Act as a whole, to permit plaintiff to institute this action after a reasonable time has passed, especially long after the three-year period within which a person with no notice of the seizure could have instituted an action to recover the seized property. We cannot conceive that the Legislature intended such an anomalous result. Even though the literal terms of the Forfeiture Act suggest this result, the teaching of Alexander v. Power & Light Co., 21 N.J. 373, 378, 122 A.2d 339 (1956), is also instructive in the purposive sense. There, our Supreme Court emphasized:

[A] statute is to receive a reasonable construction, to serve the apparent legislative purpose. The inquiry in the final analysis is the true intention of the law; and, in the quest for the intention, the letter gives way to the rationale of the expression. The words used may be expanded or limited according to the manifest reason and obvious purpose of the law. The spirit of the legislative direction prevails over the literal sense of the terms. The particular words are to be made responsive to the essential principle of the law. When the reason of the regulation is general, though the provision is special, it has a general acceptation. The language is not to be given ...

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