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City failing to follow new forfeiture law

The city of Albuquerque is violating the law. Under state law, cities are prohibited from taking the property of its citizens unless the person has been convicted of a crime.

Yet, the city of Albuquerque continues to take cash, cars and other property from people who are innocent. What the city is doing is illegal.

That is why we have partnered with the Institute for Justice, a nonpartisan, public interest law firm, and filed a lawsuit to end Albuquerque’s unjust civil forfeiture ordinance.

During the 2015 legislative session, Democrats and Republicans worked together and supported HB 560, the Forfeiture Reform Law. The bill unanimously passed both the House and Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez.

This legislation drew national attention and national accolades. It does not compromise public safety; cars from convicted drunken drivers may still be forfeited, but now the innocent are protected.

Previously, the city could seize any property with the mere accusation that it was used in a crime. But the new law, effective July 1, now states that the government may only take the property of a person who is convicted of a crime.

Apparently, the city does not like that it cannot take property from those who are not convicted and, in fact, may have done nothing wrong.

Criminal forfeiture is still legal. Bad guys can lose the property they use in illegal activity. A convicted DWI offender’s car is still subject to seizure. But, just as a convicted bad guy should not keep profits from illegal activity, the city should not keep its profits from its illegal activity, either.

Why would the city ignore the law? Well, forfeiture profit is big money for the city of Albuquerque. Albuquerque has taken so many cars, the city is even eyeing a new complex for seized vehicles.

Records show that, between 2010 and 2014, Albuquerque seized over 8,300 cars and generated $8.7 million in forfeiture revenue. Funds collected through forfeiture even pay the salaries of the very attorneys overseeing the forfeiture program.

When seizing vehicles, the city’s justification is that “the car is the problem.” In reality, the forfeiture program serves no deterrent effect, as the car is not the problem, it’s the driver. Moreover, the profit motivation of the forfeiture program preys on the very citizens the city is to protect.

Prior to the 2015 law, any property seized became the property of that municipality. This was the city’s profit motive for seizing cars and cash from its own citizens.

However, as of July 1, any forfeiture revenue must be directed to the state general fund. This money can now be reallocated to education, treatment, and other important and beneficial programs. But cities, determined to hold onto millions in forfeiture revenue, refuse to abide by the new Forfeiture Reform Law.

We both are former prosecutors, we believe in public safety, but we also know full well how civil forfeiture turns enforcing the law on its head; flipping the principle of innocent until proven guilty and treating the innocent worse than criminals.

Innocent owners rack up significant costs to prove their innocence. For some, the uphill battle seems insurmountable and they just give up.

Under the city’s regime, people do not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime to lose their property. Just as appalling, requesting a hearing to fight the forfeiture costs $50, while seized property can accrue $10 storage fees per day, not to mention attorney’s fees, making it very expensive to reclaim property the city has unlawfully seized. The system sets up property owners to fail. This must stop.

This case has enormous local and national ramifications. According to a new report by the Institute for Justice, New Mexico’s forfeiture laws are “now the best in the country” and “set a clear example for other states to follow.” But first, our city must follow them.

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