FOR THE RECORD: This story about the seizure of cash from an African-American man and his son in 2010 incorrectly reported that Albuquerque police seized the $17,000. While APD initiated the traffic stop in Albuquerque for improper lane change, a senior special agent from Homeland Security seized the money. The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a forfeiture lawsuit on the $17,000, but the money was returned to the men after the ACLU intervened on their behalf.
After two years, Stephen Skinner and his son are getting back the nearly $17,000 in cash Albuquerque police confiscated from them during a minor traffic stop in 2010 in which no charges were ever filed.
The ACLU, which represented Skinner and Jonathan Breasher in getting the money back, calls the law enforcement actions “profiling for profit.”
The two, who are African American, were dropped off at the Albuquerque Sunport virtually penniless but for the coins intended for Las Vegas slot machines.
Neither was charged with a crime, but police took the cash the two of them had in their suitcases for a vacation in Las Vegas, Nev., where they had also planned to help Skinner’s sister repair a newly purchased home. Their rental car was towed. Eventually, with efforts by their wives, they took the train back to Illinois.
“I’m 60 years old. I try to stay out of trouble. I don’t want to give the state any more money than I have to,” said Skinner, who retired in January 2008 as a supervisor at a steel mill.
“I really think we were targeted because of our color.”
The pair were stopped twice. The first time was by State Police near Raton for speeding 5 mph over the limit.
At one point on a State Police officer’s belt tape, an officer refers to Skinner as “boy,” the ACLU said.
Skinner believes those officers then contacted Albuquerque police.
The New Mexico Legislature barred state and local law enforcement from channeling forfeited civil assets into their own budgets a decade ago, but agencies have found other means of getting the funds.
A district judge in Albuquerque required Bernalillo County and former Sheriff Darren White to pay more than $3 million in damages last year to individuals whose cash was seized by sheriff’s deputies and transferred to the federal government, which then returned 80 percent to the county.
“Essentially, New Mexico law enforcement agencies seize civil assets from people who are not charged with a crime,” said ACLU-NM executive director Peter Simonson. “And if those people do not have the resources to challenge the forfeitures, the federal government will then kick back the majority of the money to the local police to use at their discretion, bypassing the state fund.”
“What’s worse is that, in this particular case, there appears to be strong indication that the whole affair was racially motivated,” he said.
Skinner’s daughter-in-law contacted the ACLU after the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a civil forfeiture suit to retain the money.
Elizabeth Martinez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the office “does not condone and will not tolerate” racial profiling of any kind, although it does file forfeiture proceedings in appropriate cases.
“Forfeiture proceedings provide a forum for parties to demonstrate a legitimate source for assets subject to forfeiture. Where a party makes this showing, the assets are returned and the proceeding is dismissed. Under federal law, currency is subject to forfeiture if it is either the proceeds of certain crimes, including drug trafficking, or is intended to facilitate such crimes.”
In the case of Skinner and Breasher, the seizure was made after a drug dog alerted police to a vehicle that was stopped during a routine traffic stop and “in light of other circumstances indicating that the currency might be associated with drug trafficking.”
Skinner and Breasher provided evidence of a legitimate source, and the money was returned, she said.
Skinner said in a phone interview that he and his son had driven all night when they were stopped by State Police about 7:15 a.m. Sept. 28, 2010, near Raton.
After pulling over the car, checking Skinner’s driver’s license and giving him a warning ticket, Skinner and his son thought they were done. But the officer asked to search the car, and Skinner acquiesced.
“We’re standing out there about two hours,” Skinner said. “(The officer) is trying to call DEA and FBI. He told me that. Then he says, ‘You guys can go.’ We put stuff back in bags. As we were getting ready to leave, I looked at him and said, ‘All of this for nothing.’ He said, ‘Trust me, it’s not over.’ ”
After a 45-minute fast-food stop in Las Vegas, N.M., they continued to Albuquerque, where they were stopped by Albuquerque police – this time Breasher was driving – for allegedly making improper lane changes. Skinner believes the Raton officer contacted police in Albuquerque.
On the heels of APD officers was Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Before the day was over, the rental car had been towed, their cash taken and the two were dropped at the Albuquerque Sunport with only the coins, Skinner said.
The forfeiture lawsuit says a drug detection dog alerted police to Skinner’s vehicle, although no drugs were found in the car. It also alleges a “strong odor of marijuana wafted from the baggie” with $3,925 in a zippered suitcase pouch. Officers also found $13,000 in a separate suitcase, including nine $1,000 bundles folded between pairs of jeans.
The forfeiture action also alleged inconsistent statements by Skinner and Breasher – disputed by the men in the claim filed on their behalf by the ACLU.