A new unclaimed property law in New Jersey allows the state to seize unused balances on gift cards after two years of nonuse. This is called escheatment law, and it dates back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  The Normans fought a bloody war and needed to organize the chaos that followed, so they decided that any property whose owner was deceased and without heirs would now belong to the state.  The legal term for this is “climbin’ in yo property, snatchin’ yo unused assets up.”

NPR and the rest of the mainstream press want you to think that this New Jersey law is just an extension of Norman legal principles.  It’s been around for ages, so they want us to assume that there must be some sense to it.  All states have escheatment laws about private property, which covers everything from your house to your iTunes gift card (unless, of course, you live in one of the fifteen states that exempt gift cards from these laws).  The most common rules about gift cards is that they escheat – or return their value to the state – after three or five years of non-use.
There are two reasons this should not be allowed.  First, gift cards are NOT unclaimed property.  They are purchased – claimed – by one party, and usually given as a gift to another.  They are then the property of the recipient to use how and when he/she pleases, within stated expiration dates that we agree to in those pesky “terms and conditions.”  A gift card I haven’t used in forever is still mine. You know what would make it not mine?  If I get hit by a bus tomorrow.  You know what would make it the state’s?  If I get hit by a bus and have no heirs, and if the retailing company had a policy of not collecting the money on the card until the card is used. Second, the Normans were conquerors.  Are we a conquered people?  Not yet.  So let’s not play by their rules.  It is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for the government to take your property even if you’re not using it.  How would you like it if your governor knocked on your door and said, “you never really use your great-grandmother’s nice china, so…mine!” or “No one’s in your bathtub right now, so…mine!”
Governments in debt are willing to squash personal freedoms to seize private assets to fill the fiscal holes they have dug.  We either stand up now, or they will come for everything.  Some state governments have already started grabbing for much larger, more valuable assets.
Gift cards are some of the least consequential items covered by escheatment laws.  In places such as California, state governments “have become more aggressive about locating those forgotten assets, and less aggressive about trying to find the rightful owners.”  This is what happened to Richard Valdes, who had $25,000 in an account and returned only to find it empty after not touching that account for two decades. It’s not like the government couldn’t find him- he had, after all, lived in California for fifty of his seventy-one years.  California seemed to think that a dinky little newspaper ad amounted to notifying someone that their assets were being seized.  Fortunately, a federal court disabused this notion. When a bank doesn’t have any money for you to withdraw from your account, the FDIC insures you for up to $250,000.  But when the government steals from you by seizing what it knows is yours and hoping you just won’t notice a few lines in the back section of the newspaper – you’re not insured.  You’re stuck.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has recently said “I’m not losing any sleep” over the new escheatment law.  Well, Governor Christie, I’ve always thought of you as a capable conservative.  So it’s time for you to chug some Red Bull, stay up late, and lose a few hours of sleep in order to repeal the most recent in a string of dangerously unconstitutional state laws.
Angela Morabito | Georgetown University | Washington, DC | @_AngelaMorabito