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Las Cruces city attorney on leave after controversial comments emerge

Las-Cruces-City-Hall3LAS CRUCES — City Attorney Harry “Pete” Connelly, the target of heavy recent criticism because of recorded comments he made about civil asset forfeiture, is on leave.

Tuesday afternoon, City Manager Robert Garza said Connelly has been out of the office since Nov. 13, four days after the New York Times published controversial comments Connelly made earlier this year during a conference on civil asset forfeiture in Santa Fe.

But Garza declined to elaborate on the nature and extent of Connelly’s leave, saying in an email to the Sun-News that it is a personnel matter.

It’s unclear if Connelly’s leave is related to the heat he has caught in the aftermath of the initial story and subsequent media reports. Though in the days before Connelly went on leave, Garza said he had “concerns” about what Connelly said.

Connelly has not returned phone messages from the Sun-News.

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice in which government authorities can seize private property if they suspect it was used in a crime.

In that vein, Las Cruces has a city ordinance that allows officials to seize vehicles from those who repeatedly violate DWI laws or related restrictions. But the city’s ordinance, modeled after one in Albuquerque and established in 2006, is viewed by many as more narrow than those in other cities where homes have been seized.

In discussing the Las Cruces ordinance in Santa Fe, Connelly said it usually nets the city older cars of little cash value. That’s why, Connelly explained in an anecdote to a crowd of law enforcement personnel and attorneys, police were excited when they had a chance to seize a newer luxury car during a stakeout from a man appearing to be drunk.

“We always try to get, every once in a while, like maybe a good car,” Connelly said at the conference, online videos show. ” … This 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 also talked about more expansive programs elsewhere, saying city attorneys “could be czars.”

Civil asset forfeiture opponents say Connelly’s anecdote prove that such laws are inherently corruptive.

Connelly’s words “capture the essence of what is wrong with the civil forfeiture process,” said Brad Cates, a longtime attorney now living in Las Cruces

Cates, a former local prosecutor and state legislator, was director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office in the late 1980s. Cates said the federal program began with good intentions, but is now a “monstrosity” and “should be abolished.”

He recently wrote an editorial in the Washington Post, explaining his position in detail and referring mostly to federal and state laws that allow authorities to confiscate cash from motorists.

“Carefully crafted city statutes are less troubling,” Cates said in a phone interview Wednesday. “However, the same fundamental issues are raised.”

Cates said asset forfeiture initiates a convoluted process that’s “not in tune with our criminal justice system.” He also said that when police use forfeiture money to fund their own departments, it creates an appearance of impropriety.

Garza said in a recent newsletter to City Council that the program has seized 2,135 vehicles and provided $1.2 million for programs aimed at reducing DWI.

The ordinance ensures “the cost is covered by those who created these safety concerns,” Garza’s newsletter said.

He and city councilors said they have received feedback about Connelly and his comments.

Most of those, councilors Greg Smith and Miguel Silva said, came from people outside the city.

One woman, who doesn’t say her name, posted on YouTube a video of herself going to Connelly’s office at City Hall last week and asking that he resign. Connelly was not there at the time.

“I can see where such a program like this can be adopted in another community and abused,” Silva said. “I don’t think that’s happening here.”

The ordinance will be discussed by City Council in an upcoming work session.

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James Staley can be reached at 575-541-5476.

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©2014 Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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