Big Cash Bucks

The end of civil forfeitures under federal law?

During Ronald Reagan's second term as president, a former New Mexico state legislator, Brad Cates, was director of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office -- the agency responsible for administering cash, cars, real estate and other assets seized from crime suspects under federal civil forfeiture laws.

If you didn't know Cates, you might assume he would be upset about today's decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to stop local and state police from using federal law to seize cash and property from drug dealers.

The opposite is true.

Although Cates, who now lives in Las Cruces,  still thinks the original intent of the forfeiture law was good. "Keeping money out of the hands of drug kingpins seemed like a good idea," he said. But his opinion of civil forfeiture "evolved," he said in a phone interview today. 

"Over time ... the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits," Cates and his predecessor at the Forfeiture Office, John Yoder wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post last September.

The op-ed came at the same time as an investigative series in the Post that reported that since 2001, police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments.

"There's nothing constitutional about this," Cates said Friday. "It violates all American jurisprudence."

Cates said that originally the law covered only a few crimes. "Now it applies to over 200 crimes," he said.

Much of the seized assets go back to the agency that made the original arrest. Because it doesn't go to a city or state general fund, that becomes a major incentive for police to seize cars, cash and money.

He said he still wants to take money away from drug lords. "But do it through criminal forfeiture, where you have a trial and find them guilty," he said

Before he went to Washington, D.C., Cates represented an Albuquerque House district between 1975 and 1982. In recent years, he's sometimes worked as a Republican analyst during legislative sessions.

Cates isn't the only New Mexican involved in the forfeiture argument. 

Last November The New York Times led a story on civil forfeitures talking about a law enforcement seminar in Santa Fe. There Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, gave police "some useful tips on seizing property" from suspected criminals. Connelly, captured on video tape, told how officers in Las Cruces nabbed an "exotic car."

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

The Las Cruces Sun reported that the police didn't get to keep that car: "Ultimately, the city had to return the Mercedes because, as Connelly explained, the eager police pounced too early, before they had proof the intoxicated man was in control of the high-dollar car."