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After three years of legislative haggling, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey signed a law on Friday making racial profiling by public officials a criminal offense. Effective immediately, the law penalizes any official who knowingly commits an act, resulting in the violation of a person’s personal or property rights, with the purpose of intimidating or discriminating against that person due to race, color, gender, ethnicity, handicap, religion or sexual orientation. Prison terms range from five to 20 years, depending on the severity of the offense The Office of Public Integrity, an arm of the attorney general’s office, will review complaints against police officers or other public officials and will have authority to prosecute or dismiss cases after an investigation. “This law will help change a culture of acceptance of civil rights infractions committed by police officers and other public servants upon minorities,” said one of the main sponsors, state Sen. Wayne Bryant, D-Camden. Legislators began considering the measure, S-429, after the state entered into a December 2000 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department’s Division of Civil Rights, which was contemplating a suit against the state police. New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer Jr. acknowledged at the time that the practice of racial profiling was “real, not imagined.” Progress on the bill was delayed while lawmakers tried to reconcile differences between two powerful lobbies in Trenton, N.J.: law enforcement organizations, who originally opposed legislation that would inhibit officers from performing their duties, and civil rights advocates who insisted on mandatory prison terms for offenders. After years of negotiating, both sides said they could support the final draft. The state Senate passed it unanimously on Feb. 27, the Assembly on Thursday in a 50-21 vote. All the opposing votes were cast by Republicans who said the law would hamper law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts. Final passage remained in doubt late in the day after some law enforcement organizations said the measure could hamper their ability to follow up on leads in so-called Amber alert cases, in which sometimes sketchy and limited information is spread widely and quickly when children are missing and believed abducted. The information sometimes may contain little more than a suspect’s color or race. In response, Acting Attorney General Peter Harvey issued a letter that indicated that any public official who makes a stop based on that information would not be prosecuted.

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