Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
The amount of money the Albuquerque Police Department receives annually from federal forfeiture proceedings has doubled in the last five years, exceeding more than $1 million in the 2014 fiscal year, according to police records.
That money is in addition to what the city receives from seizing and sometimes selling vehicles used in repeat DWI cases. Overall, Albuquerque received about $11 million from 2010 through 2014 fiscal years from property seized by law enforcement, according to the records.
New Mexico law enforcement agencies’ seizures of vehicles and other property received attention this week, when a New York Times story about the practices focused on a property-seizure forum held in Santa Fe in September.
At the conference, Las Cruces City Attorney Harry S. Connelly discussed police officers getting excited about “little goodies” and targeting a suspected drunken driver specifically because he was driving an expensive Mercedes.
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new. 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,” he said at the conference, which was posted on the city of Santa Fe’s website.
Albuquerque City Attorney David Tourek said APD officers don’t have a financial incentive to seize in DWI cases. He said money from those seizures goes back into the forfeiture program, which pays for the salaries of attorneys and paralegals who litigate the cases.
Albuquerque police Deputy Chief Eric Garcia said APD doesn’t target expensive assets in drug cases, either. Drug trafficking cases are the most common way for local law enforcement agencies to receive money from federal forfeiture proceedings.
“We target the criminals and the crimes, not the assets,” he said.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has yet to provide records requested Oct. 15 on property that deputies seized in recent years. In 2011, the county was ordered to pay $3 million in damages after a judge found deputies violated state law by confiscating money during traffic stops.
The money the deputies confiscated while working on an interagency task force had been funneled back to the BCSO after federal forfeiture proceedings.
Fed seizures, local money
Any state or local law enforcement agency involved in an arrest or prosecution that results in a forfeiture in federal court may request a share of the proceeds from the confiscated property, according to a Department of Justice guide on the practice.
The federal forfeiture funds Albuquerque received in recent years were the result of Special Investigation Division detectives partnering with federal agents to primarily target drug traffickers, said APD Cmdr. Les Brown, who oversees those detectives.
“It’s a way to stop criminal activity,” he said of property seizures. “They shouldn’t be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They shouldn’t be able to enjoy living off getting illicit funds by committing a crime.”
Brown said the money from the program goes to SID detectives to purchase drugs and pay criminal informants as part of their investigations.
“When you are trying to target a large drug trafficking organization, you can’t go buy a rock of crack. You have to buy a kilo … to spark their interest,” Brown said.
Practice under fire
Critics of civil forfeitures say the increase in funds from federal seizures that go to Albuquerque coffers in recent years is concerning.
“I think it’s just that (Albuquerque police) have figured out there’s good money to be made by arresting people and seizing their property,” said Peter Simonson, the executive director for the ACLU in New Mexico.
The most recent time the ACLU got involved in an Albuquerque case was in 2010, when a father and son from Illinois had $17,000 in cash seized from their vehicle while they were passing through Albuquerque on their way to Las Vegas, Nev.
APD initiated the traffic stop, and a Homeland Security agent confiscated the money. The U.S. Attorney’s Office started forfeiture proceedings; the ACLU intervened on the men’s behalf and got their money back.
But APD officials said there hasn’t been a similar case that raised questions about the federal forfeitures since that time.
“We haven’t had anything like that since then. There’s a lot of checks and balances in the system,” Garcia said. “It’s not just our detectives. You have the federal agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
A city of Albuquerque ordinance allows the police to seize a vehicle while arresting someone with repeat DWI convictions.
The amount of money funneled into city coffers from DWI seizures has been decreasing in recent years.
In the 2010 fiscal year, Albuquerque got $1.8 million from DWI seizures. That number had dropped to $1.3 million in the 2014 fiscal year.
But concerns remain.
Colin Hunter, an attorney representing several people who filed a class-action lawsuit against the city over seized vehicles, said city laws give police a “perverse incentive” to confiscate vehicles to pad their budget.
The lawsuit is on behalf of “innocent owners,” people whose cars were confiscated when other people were caught drinking and driving them.
Hunter also pointed to District Judge Clay Campbell’s decision in November 2013 when he ruled the “ordinance violates due process and is thus unconstitutional.”
Tourek disputed that it violates due process and said “innocent owners” have numerous ways to get their vehicles back. He said the DWI seizure program protects the public.
“It stops drunk drivers from getting back into the vehicle that they have been previously caught driving drunk in,” he said.