Earlier this year, New Mexico abolished civil forfeiture, the tool that allows law enforcement agencies to seize property that they think has been used in, or is the result of, criminal activity.
Most thought the new law permanently ended the practice in New Mexico.
Five months after New Mexico’s sweeping reforms went into effect, the city of Albuquerque continues to seize and seek forfeiture of vehicles—including those that, by the city’s own admission, belong to innocent third parties—in what is apparently a direct violation of state law. The city insists it needs the practice to deter drunk driving; however, its claim appears to be unsubstantiated.
Wednesday, two state senators, Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-District 15, and Lisa Torraco, R-District 18, joined with the public interest law firm the Institute for Justice to sue the city of Albuquerque. They are seeking a permanent injunction to stop the city’s forfeiture program.
With civil asset forfeiture, property owners need not be charged with, much less convicted of, a crime to lose their property. Typically, prosecutors need only prove by a preponderance of the evidence that property is subject to forfeiture; it then becomes the responsibility of the owner to effectively prove he or she is innocent.
At the same time, law enforcement agencies that seize property are often allowed to keep the proceeds resulting from successful forfeitures, and they spend these funds with little to no oversight or accountability. This direct financial incentive has all too often skewed the priorities of police, sheriffs, and prosecutors toward seizing and forfeiting cash as a way to generate revenue, sometimes at the expense of other areas of law enforcement.
Eight months ago, the New Mexico legislature unanimously passed a measure to abolish civil forfeiture in the state. Under the new law, agencies can forfeit property only if someone alleged to have used or derived the property in connection with a crime is, in fact, convicted of that crime, and the burden of proof in any subsequent forfeiture cases is now “clear and convincing evidence” rather than the much lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Innocent property owners are no longer required to prove their own innocence. And financial conflicts of interest have been resolved by redirecting all forfeiture proceeds to the state general fund.
Following the reforms, which went into effect in July, New Mexico’s statutory code now plainly states that “only criminal forfeiture is allowed in this state.”
Refusing to Reform
Albuquerque, it seems, did not get the message. Despite the new state law, the city continues to target vehicles for seizure and forfeiture if the driver of the car is arrested (but not necessarily convicted, as state law now requires) for driving while intoxicated.
Each year, the city seizes approximately 1,000 vehicles and brings in roughly $1 million in forfeiture proceeds, which are used primarily to pay the salaries of the police and prosecutors who run the program—in other words, exactly the sort of perverse financial incentive New Mexico’s reforms were designed to eliminate.
It gets worse, though. The city budget for 2016 “estimates” that the city will hold 1,200 vehicle seizure hearings next year, release 350 vehicles, retain 600 more, and sell 625 vehicles at auction. These estimates read more like quotas in disguise, and they make it extremely difficult to believe that Albuquerque’s vehicle seizure program is a fundamentally fair one.
Why Albuquerque Won’t Stop Seizing Property
Albuquerque insists that civil forfeiture is a necessary deterrent to drunk driving, but there is one problem with this assertion: Drunk drivers frequently do not drive their own cars, and Albuquerque’s forfeiture scheme makes no distinction between a drunk driver and an innocent third party. In fact, the city’s chief administrative hearing officer admits, “Half the vehicles [seized] are not owned by the drunks we take them from.”
That may be a low estimate. According to the Albuquerque Journal, during one week in April, the city held 14 DWI forfeiture hearings; in only four of those hearings was the car at risk of forfeiture actually owned by the drunk driver. Innocent third parties seeking to contest the forfeiture of their vehicles must pay $50 for the privilege of a hearing.
They also must pay daily parking fees for each day that their vehicles are impounded, and those fees can add up fast: If an innocent driver decides to challenge a seizure, rather than simply pay a fine to get his car back (usually set at about $850), a vehicle can languish in an impound for upwards of a year. Add in the cost to hire an attorney for the challenge, and the burden of life without a vehicle, and Albuquerque’s forfeiture system imposes steep costs on innocent citizens.
Albuquerque officials do not seem particularly troubled by this arrangement. Perhaps they should travel to nearby Santa Fe county and talk to former sheriff Greg Solano. In 2006, then-Sheriff Solano pushed hard for a DWI forfeiture law very similar to Albuquerque’s. Solano justified the ability to seize cars from even innocent third parties as creating an incentive for responsible vehicle owners to keep the keys out of the hands of would-be drunk drivers.
Eight years later, Solano’s drunk daughter wrecked his BMW (she was unharmed). Now an innocent owner himself, Solano denounced the seizure of his vehicle as unjust and vowed to take Santa Fe to court.
Is Asset Forfeiture a Deterrent to Drunk Driving?
Albuquerque asserts that its DWI forfeiture law is a “narrowly-tailored nuisance abatement law to protect the public from dangerous, repeat DWI offenders and the vehicles they use.” That statement should be treated with skepticism: The fact is, Albuquerque’s forfeiture system seems designed to push drivers toward paying steep fines to win the rapid release of their vehicles. Albuquerque’s DWI program has all the hallmarks of a revenue-generating scheme dressed up as a law enforcement program.
Albuquerque’s DWI forfeiture program is the perfect example of the sort of system that drove New Mexico’s lawmakers to action earlier this year. The willingness of the city to buck what appears to be a plainly written state statute to perpetuate an indefensible program speaks to the power of the forfeiture profit incentive. Albuquerque residents deserve better, and hopefully they will not have to wait long: A ruling in the lawsuit is expected by the end of the year.