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New Mexico’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Reforms Have Stalled

In 2015, New Mexico passed a law banning civil asset forfeiture, a legal procedure where law enforcement may seize property or cash from individuals even if they have not been convicted of a crime. Now, three years later, reform efforts seem to have stalled. Law enforcement agencies across the state are failing to report property and cash which has been legally forfeited. It is also unclear what has happened to most of the forfeited cash.

According to New Mexico’s civil forfeiture reforms, law enforcement agencies are required to report all forfeitures to the Department of Public Safety. Once submitted, they are to be published on the department’s website by April 1 every year. Even though reporting by law enforcement agencies was widespread in 2015, few reports have been submitted to the department since then.

In 2016, New Mexico State Police was the sole agency which reported its civil asset forfeitures. It seized $203,922 in cash and property that year. State police also submitted a report in 2017, showing they seized $17,920. The village of Angel Fire was the only other law enforcement agency to file a report for 2017.

“We’re very troubled that municipalities are not completing these reports. This is something state law is unequivocal about,” said Robert Johnson, an attorney at the libertarian Institute for Justice, an organization fighting for civil asset forfeiture reform. “It’s the only way for the public to keep an eye on what is going on with forfeiture. What we see time and time again is the lack of information around forfeiture allows abuse to thrive.”

The 2015 reforms stated that any property or money legitimately taken was to be handed over to the state treasurer, where it would be added to the state’s general fund. This section of the law is not being followed correctly.

“What we got was a bill that was not workable,” said State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg. “It came to the treasurer’s office unfunded with no policy guide, and I have no way to enforce it. How can I enforce it without funding?”

Law enforcement agencies across the state have attempted to deliver seized property to Eichenberg’s office. However, Eichenberg has had to turn this away, as he has nowhere to store it. Velvet Valentine, a records custodian with the state treasury, said her department had received only $14,221 in cash and four bicycles from the city of Farmington in the north-west of the state. Valentine did not mention what happened to either the $203,922 or the $17,920 seized by state police in 2016 and 2017 respectively, not to mention the seizures reported by Angel Fire.

“We got what we got,” said Deputy State Treasurer Samuel Collins who was unable to explain the discrepancy. “I can’t speak to [the Department of Public Safety’s reported] number.”

Herman Lovato, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said state and local law enforcement agencies might have handled reported funds in a variety of ways rather than deposit them directly in the state’s general fund. For example, funds may have been returned to their owners after the reporting period, or courts may be holding funds as forfeiture cases work their way through the legal system.

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2018-07-22 New Mexico Agencies Fail to Report Forfeited Assets as Law Requires

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