Back in April, I reported on the case of Arlene Harjo. When Arlene’s son drove her car while drunk, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) seized her car using a process known as civil asset forfeiture. They would not give it back even though she had committed no crime. Now, a federal judge presiding over her case has found that Albuquerque’s use of civil asset forfeiture is “unconstitutional.”
In 2015, a law was passed in New Mexico essentially banning civil asset forfeiture. This is the legal procedure where law enforcement can take an individual’s property when it is suspected of being involved in a crime. In most states, criminal charges do not need to be filed as this type of forfeiture is a civil, not a criminal, process.
Albuquerque, home to a quarter of New Mexico’s population, continued to use civil asset forfeiture despite the statewide ban. The APD’s DWI Seizure Unit ran an aggressive program to take possession of cars during arrests.
Arlene partnered with the libertarian Institute for Justice (IJ) to fight her case. In December 2016, the city returned her car, saying they now realized it had been seized outside of city limits. Despite this, Arlene continued to fight her case, saying she wanted to put an end to civil forfeiture in Albuquerque for good.
In spring of this year, the APD announced it would cease its seizure program. The IJ, however, was keen for the case to come before a judge. This way, they felt, there would be a ruling against the City of Albuquerque which would act as a precedent to deter other municipalities.
Judge James O. Browning, who presided over the case, was clear in his ruling: “The City of Albuquerque has an unconstitutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases,” he wrote. “There is a realistic possibility that forfeiture officials’ judgment will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain—the more revenues they raise, the more revenues they can spend.”
The ruling further notes that the forfeiture process is unconstitutional because it places the burden of proof on the individual whose property has been seized. The city, Browning wrote, has a “constitutional obligation” to correctly determine fault, but their current process is “constitutionally inadequate.”
Albuquerque’s mayor, Tim Keller, has spoken in support of the judgment. “This ruling confirms our concerns with the past approach and the need to protect the constitutional rights of people in our community.”
The ruling also revealed that many people who found themselves without their vehicle were in Arlene’s position: “about half of the vehicles that APD seizes are not owned by the offender.” Further, even if an owner wins a court case and has a seized vehicle returned, the court would “impose storage fees as a condition of the vehicle’s release.” In Arlene’s case, these would have totaled $4,000. In the end, she did not have to pay.
According to the ruling, “One of the most significant expenses paid out of [the civil asset forfeiture] program is employee compensation.” Further, employees of the DWI Seizure Unit were assessed on their ability to “increase the amount of revenues generated from seized vehicles.” In this way, the APD incentivized seizures and directly profited from the revenues gained.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.