The city of Albuquerque has announced it will end its civil asset forfeiture program. This change comes over two years after civil asset forfeiture was essentially banned at the state level in New Mexico.
In 2016, Arlene Harjo had her 2014 Nissan Versa seized by the city of Albuquerque. She never committed a crime, nor was she even charged with one. At the time her car was seized, Arlene had lent it to her son, Tino. He was stopped and charged with drunk driving. While Arlene agreed her son should be punished if he broke the law, she did not agree she should lose her car because of it.
The city, however, was following its standard seizure procedures in taking Arlene’s car. According to law enforcement’s DWI procedures, police could seize the vehicle of anyone arrested for drunk driving even without a criminal conviction.
In the five-year period between 2010 and 2014, the city seized more than 8,300 vehicles. That is one car for every 66 residents of Albuquerque. These seizures netted law enforcement an average of over $1 million per year. The proceeds of these seizures could then be used to pay the wages of the law enforcement officers who make the seizures. This leads to what critics of the system, including the libertarian Institute for Justice, describe as “policing for profit.”
“It’s a scam and a rip-off. They’re taking property from people who just loan a vehicle to someone,” explained Arlene. “Everybody I’ve talked to has had it happen to them or somebody they know.”
When the city said Arlene would have to pay $4,000 to get her car back, she refused and took the city to court. Although they returned her vehicle in December 2016, Arlene continued to pursue her case. She aimed to achieve a bigger goal: to make sure Albuquerque followed the rest of the New Mexico in banning civil asset forfeiture.
Albuquerque had argued the reforms implemented statewide in 2015 to ban civil asset forfeiture did not preempt the city’s procedures. Nonetheless, the adverse publicity brought by Arlene’s case led to a significant decline in proceeds from seizures of vehicles. From a high of $1.81 million in 2010, these proceeds had fallen to $598,000 by the end of 2017.
On March 30, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge James Browning issued an opinion on Arlene’s case. Browning stated that, “The Court concludes that the Forfeiture Ordinance’s innocent owner defense violates due process because innocent owners have a great interest in their vehicle, and there is a significant risk of erroneous deprivation flowing from placing the burden of proof on innocent owners.”
Addressing the question of “policing for profit,” Browning continued: “Because it is plausible that the program’s dependent on forfeiture revenues threatens officials’ salaries, the vehicle forfeiture program violates due process. The opinion concluded that there is “strong evidence” that the statewide ban on civil asset forfeiture does, indeed, preempt the city’s procedures.
The following Friday, Mayor Tim Keller announced through an aide that, going forward, Albuquerque law enforcement would only seize vehicles in cases where there has been a criminal conviction.
Robert Johnson of the Institute for Justice is cautiously optimistic about the change. “For years, Albuquerque has refused to abide by state law. … Now we have to see if the city council will walk the walk and fully embrace the New Mexico Forfeiture Reform Act.”
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Image by Skarz.