Police Departments Won't Get Rich off Your Property in This State

April 10th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Police in New Mexico will no longer engage in the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement officers can seize personal property, often absent any formal charges or conviction of a crime, and sell it for profit.

In what advocates are calling an historic step, the practice, described by critics as "policing for profit," was outlawed Friday when New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez (R) signed HB 560 into law, ending what many saw as a deeply flawed injustice.

"It's literally a historic piece of legislation," Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told ATTN:. "It corrects what has been a fundamental injustice in our system of laws, it restores basic property rights to New Mexicans, and I think it should send a message to other states and to our federal lawmakers that we need to reign in the authorities that we've given to law enforcement to take away people's property and to do it without even convicting or charging them with a crime."

Introduced by Rep. Zachary Cook (R), the bill enjoyed bipartisan approval in both New Mexico's House and Senate and was signed into law at the last minute Friday by Martinez, a former district attorney. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the bill will replace civil asset forfeiture with criminal forfeiture, a feature that would mandate a conviction before any property tied to the crime could be confiscated.

In a statement, Martinez was clear in her support of reigning in what was an easily exploited system, but was also careful not to lend too much credence to the many vocal opponents of civil asset forfeiture laws.

"As an attorney and career prosecutor, I understand how important it is that we ensure safeguards are in place to protect our constitutional rights," she wrote. "However, 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," she said, adding that "it is also dangerous to discount the role that funds acquired through forfeitures have played in keeping our communities safe and in protecting our officers from harm."

Other advocates echoed Martinez's stance. According to Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, a policy advocacy group backing the law, HB 560 could set a standard for striking a balance between police seizures and individuals' property rights. "Convicted criminals will still see the fruits of their crime confiscated by the state, but innocent New Mexicans can now rest easy knowing that their property will never be seized by police without proper due process," he said in a release.

"This is extremely important legislation, it's the strongest civil asset forfeiture protections passed by any state in the nation, it'll be a model for other states dealing with this issue, and it's really incredible and exciting that we had not only a unanimous legislature voting in favor of this, but also a Republican governor from a law enforcement background signing the bill," Gessing told ATTN: in a phone call.

Many other states still operate with civil asset forfeiture laws that were often exploited through a federal law known as Equitable Sharing that allowed them to reinvest seized money back into their departments' operating budgets instead of a state's general fund. As ATTN: reported in November, since September 11th, 2001, police across the country have seized over $2.6 billion in cash from people never charged with a crime. In Philadelphia, authorities have seized more than 1,000 houses, around 3,300 vehicles, and more than $40 million over just a ten-year period. Some argue that seized property was helpful in beefing up departments' ability to fight crime, but records show that the money wasn't always reinvested responsibly: a DA office in Worcester, Mass., for example, was found to have used seized funds to buy liquor and a frozen margarita machine for the police department.

In January, Attorney General Eric Holder introduced a ban on local and state police forces' use of the Equitable Sharing program, and similar bipartisan legislation on the federal level has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, such as Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, which seeks to mandate that the federal government prove a crime has been committed before it can seize related assets.