Sens. Lisa Torraco, R-Albuquerque, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, want a judge to rule on whether the city’s program needs to be reformed given that, last year, state lawmakers passed legislation that was signed into law by the governor that ended civil asset forfeiture in the state.
Albuquerque and several other law enforcement agencies in the state, however, still take vehicles driven by suspected drunken drivers or suspects in several other crimes prior to convicting the drivers of a crime.
The senators have said that the owner of the vehicle should have to be convicted prior to the city taking possession of a vehicle – which is usually released to the owner if they agree to pay fines and fees, and have the vehicle immobilized for a period of time.
“The intent (of the motion) is to tell the court that this is a case that can be solved expeditiously,” said Robert Everett Johnson, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit on the senators’ behalf. “This is a very simple case. The law is clear.”
Johnson said the goal of the plaintiffs is to get a judge to end the city’s vehicle seizure program. He said the city would then have to write new rules for a similar program that would seize vehicles after a conviction instead of after arrest.
The city, however, maintains that state laws abolishing civil asset forfeiture do not change municipal ordinances governing vehicle seizure.
“As we have said before, the city of Albuquerque is not ignoring the state law,” City Attorney Jessica Hernandez said in a statement. “Before the new law took effect last July, a state court judge ruled that the city is exempt from the state law. The judge based that ruling on a portion of the law that did not change. The city will continue using every legal option it has to protect the community from repeat DWI offenders.”
Albuquerque is moving forward with plans to buy land to create a complex to store seized vehicles. And goals for how many vehicles to seize and how much the city will make from the practice are included in the current fiscal year’s budget.
“Nobody is saying that Albuquerque can’t have a forfeiture program and take vehicles from people who commit crimes,” Johnson said. “But only after a conviction.”
A review of cases in Albuquerque found that the city was often taking vehicles that weren’t owned by the suspected drunken driver. Sometimes, the car was owned by the suspect’s friend or relative.
The city “admits that it continues to take property using civil forfeiture from people accused (but not convicted) of a broad range of criminal offenses,” the motion states. “And Albuquerque also admits that it continues to retain forfeiture proceeds for use by law enforcement – including to pay law enforcement salaries – and even plans for those proceeds in its annual budget.”