Albuquerque police are so confident the city’s DWI seizure program is here to stay the department is seeking to buy land to create a complex to store seized vehicles and be a base of operations for DWI and traffic officers.
Both city and state officials say municipal seizure programs like Albuquerque’s are unaffected by a change to state law this year that prohibited law enforcement agencies from seizing property before a conviction and using the revenue to supplement their budgets.
Deputy Chief William Roseman said Albuquerque police lease property on Edith Boulevard where they store vehicles seized in drunken-driving arrests and station the department’s tactical officers, which include the SWAT team and K-9 officers. He said the lease costs the department about $20,000 a month, and the rate is expected to go up significantly when the contract expires next year.
So the department is planning to purchase a 15-acre property and secure it so it could become a base for traffic and DWI officers and storage for seized vehicles. The department also is looking to update a building for tactical officers at the New Mexico National Guard site near Wyoming and Copper, he said.
City Councilor Trudy Jones is sponsoring a resolution that would allow the department to complete both projects. The legislation, which would appropriate $3.3 million, also would allow for police to replace some aging marked patrol units using money the city has made from seizing vehicles.
The resolution hasn’t been placed on a City Council agenda, but Jones said she expects the council to consider it next month.
An Albuquerque ordinance calls for police to take the vehicle from anyone arrested on suspicion of a second or subsequent drunken-driving charge or on suspicion of driving on a suspended or revoked license because of a prior DWI.
“You take the weapon out of their hands,” Roseman said of the ordinance. “It’s not here to be a moneymaker. It’s here to be a deterrent.”
In some cases, such as if the second-offense DWI driver owns the vehicle, the city can take ownership of the vehicle and sell it at auction.
But police take control of any car involved in any DWI arrest that meets the criteria.
In most seizure cases, city officials and the vehicle owner negotiate an agreement in which the city releases the car back to the owner. But those owners still face towing, storage and administrative fees and, in most cases, an agreement to pay hundreds of dollars and have the vehicle booted for an extended period of time, depending on circumstances, after it is released, according to a review of seizure cases.
Last year, Albuquerque police took control of vehicles in more than half of the department’s DWI arrests. Police made 2,225 drunken-driving arrests and seized 1,272 vehicles, according to the department’s annual report. The city made about $1.2 million from the practice.
In 2013, police made 2,181 drunken-driving arrests and seized 542 vehicles, which means about 25 percent of all DWI arrests led to a seizure, according to that year’s report.
There is a pending 2-year-old class-action lawsuit against the city over its seizure program that recently was amended to cite the state’s Forfeiture Act.
State law change
The New Mexico Legislature changed that act during this year’s session, and Gov. Susana Martinez signed it into law.
The law requires that law enforcement agencies trying to take property under the state law first must obtain a conviction. And the proceeds from those seizures go to the state general fund and not the individual law enforcement agencies. Those cases often dealt with seizures of cash and other property police believed was part of criminal activity.
Colin Hunter, an Albuquerque attorney involved in that litigation, said the lawsuit is now stronger and has been amended to reflect those legislative changes.
But Roseman said the city legal department has advised police that Albuquerque’s DWI seizures won’t be affected by the state law change. And there appears to be consensus among several state officials that the municipal seizure programs in the state are not at odds with the Forfeiture Act.
“Municipal DWI car seizure programs are not affected by HB 560 because they don’t occur under the state’s forfeiture act, the law that the bill amends,” Greg Fouratt, Department of Public Safety secretary, said in a statement.
Gov. Martinez said earlier this year that drunken drivers in Albuquerque have been “given fair warning” that their vehicle – or the vehicle they are driving – can be seized upon arrest and “held” until conviction.
She said that she supports APD’s “holding their vehicle until conviction” and that the practice is not affected by the state’s changes to the longtime law enforcement practice of seizing private assets.
New Mexico law still allows police to take assets that include cash, vehicles, homes and furnishings and other valuables under the New Mexico Forfeiture Act from suspects involved in drug trafficking and other criminal cases if there is a conviction.
Rep. Zachary Cook, R-Ruidoso, the sponsor of the legislation that changed state law governing forfeitures, did not respond to calls about whether he intended municipal seizures to be affected.
The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office also seizes vehicles from drivers suspected of multiple drunken-driving cases. So do several other law enforcement agencies in New Mexico.
Journal staff writer Maggie Shepard contributed to this report.