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Gov. signs law prohibiting civil asset forfeiture

SANTA FE – A landmark bill to prohibit civil asset forfeiture was signed into law Friday by Gov. Susana Martinez, though the Republican governor took issue with descriptions of the practice as “policing for profit.”

In an executive message explaining her decision to sign the bill, Martinez, a former prosecutor, said she understands the importance of constitutional rights and said the new law will protect innocent property owners.

However, she took issue with the term “policing for profit,” which backers of the legislation have used to describe law enforcement seizures of money, cars or other types of property from people during an arrest.

“… I must make it clear that ‘policing for profit’ is an overused, oversimplified and cynical term that, in my opinion, disrespects our law enforcement officers,” Martinez wrote, adding the phrase impugns the motives of police officers.

The civil asset forfeiture legislation, House Bill 560, was approved unanimously by both the House and Senate during this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Gov. Susana Martinez is seen signing some bills into law on Thursday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Susana Martinez is seen signing some bills into law on Thursday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The new law, which takes effect in July, will bar law enforcement seizures on civil grounds during an arrest or traffic stop on suspicion the property was connected to a crime. It will not prevent forfeiture – of cars, houses or other assets – in criminal cases when a defendant is found guilty.

However, any proceeds from forfeitures will have to be put into the state’s general fund instead of being used to bolster individual law enforcement agencies’ budgets.

Albuquerque officials said Friday that it remains uncertain what effect the bill will have on the city. The city has received more than $11 million since the 2010 fiscal year from different types of seizures.

The city of Albuquerque’s DWI seizure program, for example, takes vehicles suspected of being driven by repeat drunken driving offenders under a nuisance and abatement ordinance, and not the New Mexico Forfeiture Act, said managing assistant attorney Eric Locher. The city has received more than $8 million from seizing those vehicles and requiring owners pay fees to get the vehicles back, or by putting the vehicles up for auction, according to city records.

“We’re going to err on the side of caution and continue to enforce the (DWI seizure) program for public safety,” he said. “We anticipate there will be some litigation because there is some ambiguity in the law.”

Albuquerque police also received $1 million in the 2014 fiscal year as a result of forfeiture proceedings in federal court that stemmed from investigations APD was involved in, according to city records. City officials said it’s not clear how that practice would be affected by the bill signed Friday.

Critics of forfeitures, however, said the bill was clear and will stop local police departments from adding to their budgets with money obtained through seizures.

“This is a state law that supersedes the jurisdiction of local laws, so, for example, the DWI forfeiture statutes that you have in places like Albuquerque … they will all have to comply with these requirements,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU in New Mexico.

The practice of civil asset forfeiture has funneled millions of dollars and property to state and local law enforcement agencies, some of which sent letters to the governor in recent weeks asking her to veto the legislation. Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales, who asked for a veto, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Martinez waited until the final day of the bill-signing period – 20 days after the end of the legislative session – to act on the measure, and staffers said it was one of the most difficult decisions the Governor’s Office faced.

The governor, whose husband Chuck Franco is a former Doña Ana County undersheriff, wrote in her executive message that funds acquired through forfeiture have been beneficial to law enforcement efforts, saying, “We cannot allow this new law to undermine our efforts to combat crime throughout this state.”

Former Attorney General Hal Stratton, a supporter of the bill, said it will now be up to legislators to ensure law enforcement agencies are funded adequately.

Stratton, a Republican, praised the governor for her decision to sign the measure, saying civil asset forfeiture got “way out of hand” since being enacted – he helped craft the law as a member of the Legislature – in the 1980s.

He and other backers of the measure described the new law as one of the toughest of its kind in the nation.

“This will be recognized nationally,” Stratton said. “Other states will look at this. It’s nice for New Mexico to be out in front.”

ACLU’s Simonson said the bill “is for all those people in our state who … lost their money and belongings to law enforcement seizures and who never even were charged with a crime, much less convicted.”