In 2010, a 60-year-old African American man and his son, newly reconciled, set off from Chicago to Las Vegas, Nev., to visit another relative. The mapping system in their rented car directed them to Las Vegas, N.M., instead.
Coming through Raton, they were stopped by New Mexico State Police for speeding. The man gave officers permission to search his car, in which they found $17,000 in cash that he and his son were carrying to help pay for the trip and for renovations to the relative’s new home.
According to court documents, before releasing the pair, one officer warned, “This isn’t over yet.” When the man asked what he meant, the officer allegedly said, “You’ll see.”
Sure enough, Albuquerque police later pulled them over for a minor traffic violation, and an official from the Department of Homeland Security showed up, seized the cash, impounded the rental car and dropped the man and his son at the airport with nothing but a jar of coins they were planning to use in the slot machines in Las Vegas.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico intervened and recovered the man’s money. “That’s one case. This happens all over the country,” said Steven Allen, the ACLU’s director of policy.
There have been hundreds of cases of civil asset forfeiture in the U.S. in recent years. Some are so flagrant that the Institute for Justice calls the practice “policing for profit.” And John Oliver, the television host and satirist, devoted a segment of Last Week Tonight to the subject.
Civil forfeiture law allows police to seize and keep property — cash, vehicles, houses — of people who haven’t even even been charged with wrongdoing, based on suspicion that the property is connected to a crime.
But cases like the one in New Mexico have triggered a national movement to do away with what many on both sides of the political divide consider to be abuse by law enforcement agencies. A number of states and the U.S. Congress are considering legislation.
In New Mexico, House Bill 560, sponsored by Zachary J. Cook, R-Ruidoso, would abolish civil asset forfeiture and establish procedures for innocent owners to recover their property.
It would preserve criminal asset forfeiture, allowing law enforcement officials to seize property when a person has been convicted of a crime and the property was acquired through commission of the crime.
But the New Mexico Department of Public Safety would no longer be able to convert forfeited and abandoned property to its use for law enforcement purposes or keep the proceeds from the public sale of forfeited property.
Civil forfeiture is popular in the law enforcement community. Last November during a seminar in Santa Fe, Las Cruces City Attorney Pete Donnelly said that civil forfeiture could be a “gold mine” for authorities. “We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business,” he said, adding that Las Cruces had collected about $1 million from residents since instituting a civil asset forfeiture statute in 2006.
The Department of Public Safety opposes HB 560, arguing that asset forfeiture revenue is “critical to funding the DPS law enforcement investigations and operations.”
It warns that the department would have to request additional funding through the Legislature for equipment, resources and training if the bill were to become law. The bill also would require DPS to create a seizure and forfeiture website and database.
The bill has bipartisan support among lawmakers, based on both civil liberties and property rights grounds. It passed the House by a unanimous vote Tuesday and was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The ACLU-New Mexico, the Rio Grande Foundation, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Institute for Justice are all backing the measure.
Allen, who is tracking the bill in the Legislature, said federal officers are often brought in as a way to circumvent the state forfeiture act. “When the feds seize the property, they can take the money and kick back up to 80 percent to the local agency that helped them identify the property in the first place,” he said.
HB 560 would close that loophole.
“It’s so commonsensical,” Allen said, “and there is still time to get through the process and on the governor’s desk.”
To Paul J. Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free market think tank, “this is roulette time.” He said he was encouraged that the bill was assigned to only one committee in the Senate, making approval possible by the time the Legislature recesses on Saturday.
Gessing said he did not know if the governor, who has a law enforcement background, would sign the bill if it passes.
But, he noted, “We’ve not been alone in our assessment that this has been a pretty disappointing legislative session. [Passing this bill] would be something really great for New Mexico, addressing an issue [that has been] a problem across the nation. “
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or email@example.com.
On the Web
John Oliver segment on civil asset forfeiture: http://tinyurl.com/n88y3ey