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Santa Fe mayor seeks end to vehicle seizure law

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber has proposed an ordinance that would repeal the city’s vehicle forfeiture ordinance – used to seize cars from people charged with driving drunk – that has already been struck down in court.

Mayor Alan Webber

The mayor’s proposed ordinance also says, “Any proceeds remaining from the administration of the Vehicle Forfeiture Act … shall be used for driving while intoxicated (DWI) enforcement, and substance abuse treatment, prevention and education.”

That’s a noble cause, but the state Forfeiture Act has long had other ideas about money from vehicle seizures. It says, “Forfeited currency and all proceeds of the sale of forfeited or abandoned property shall be distributed by the state treasurer … .”

The act adds, “Proceeds from the sale of forfeited property received by the state from another jurisdiction shall be deposited into the (state) general fund.”

The city’s position is that it can keep any money generated from the sales of seized vehicles before the state Court of Appeals struck down city vehicle forfeiture programs like those in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

Santa Fe halted vehicle seizures in December after the state Court of Appeals ruled that a similar ordinance in Albuquerque “completely contradicts” the state Forfeiture Law, which was passed in 2015 and was revamped in this year’s legislative session.

The opinion reversed a District Court decision in a 2016 lawsuit filed by plaintiff Wilfredo Espinoza against Albuquerque city government.

In January, the state appeals court also ruled that Santa Fe’s seizure ordinance contradicted state law, after a city prosecutor lost a forfeiture case in District Court and filed an appeal.

Santa Fe city government spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said last week the city does not believe there’s a problem keeping money generated by an ordinance that the court system determined was against state law.

“Vehicles seized and forfeited prior to the Espinoza ruling were considered to have been lawfully seized and forfeited, and were disposed of in accordance with the (city) Forfeiture Ordinance, which the City considered a valid Ordinance until the NM Court of Appeals ruled otherwise,” Chacon said in an email.

Webber’s bill that would officially dismiss the ordinance that allowed the city to seize vehicles from people accused of DWI or of driving on a license that had been revoked as a result of a DWI conviction, even before that driver was found guilty of the new crime.

The repeal bill has gone through the City Council’s Finance Committee and the advisory Public Safety Committees.

On Wednesday, the City Council will consider issuing a public notice for a public hearing on the ordinance that would take place Oct. 30. The council could make a decision on the repeal at that meeting.

The state law required seized vehicles to be delivered to the state treasurer’s office so they could be sold at a public auction, but cities never did that.

State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg told the Journal last year that he had no powers to enforce the law.

The Forfeiture Act requires law enforcement agencies to provide detailed reports of all property and currency they take ownership of to the Department of Public Safety each year. But, as the Journal reported last year, no local governments in the state complied with the statute.

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