Friday, December 28, 2018

Albuquerque civil forfeiture struck down on appeal

Cops Can't Ignore New Mexico's Ban On Civil Forfeiture, Court Rules - Nick Sibilla, Forbes:

December 19, 2018 - "The city of Albuquerque cannot confiscate cars without a criminal conviction and must comply with a New Mexico state law that abolished civil forfeiture, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled this month. Under a vehicle seizure ordinance intended to combat drunk driving, Albuquerque seized hundreds of cars from innocent owners and freely admitted that “about half of the vehicles” taken “are not owned by the offender that we confiscate it from.” Confiscations were so lucrative, program revenue frequently exceeded expenses, giving police and prosecutors their own slush fund worth millions of dollars.

"Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Stephen French ruled that Albuquerque’s forfeiture program was 'wholly contrary to the language and spirit' of New Mexico’s reform, which preempted the city's ordinance 'in its entirety.' This decision joins a landmark ruling from late July that declared Albuquerque’s forfeiture program unconstitutional.

“'When we came into office, I halted vehicle forfeitures' ... Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement. 'During this time, our police department has ramped up other effective DWI prevention efforts to combat drunk driving and make our city safer.'

"Back in 2015, state lawmakers unanimously passed the New Mexico Forfeiture Act (NMFA) after several New Mexico law enforcement officials were caught on camera making outrageous comments about civil forfeiture. This landmark law abolished the practice throughout the state.... But several cities, including Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Las Cruces, refused to comply. These municipalities continued to seize cars under their existing ordinances, which lacked the protections now guaranteed by state law....

"From fiscal 2009 to 2016, Albuquerque collected $11.8 million in revenue from its forfeiture program, with $3.7 million spent on salaries and benefits for the DWI Seizure Unit. Forfeiture revenue even funded the paychecks of the city attorneys who prosecuted forfeiture cases...

"To justify its noncompliance, Albuquerque argued that municipalities could 'opt-in' to the NMFA.... But Judge French ... cited the NMFA’s purposes, which explicitly stated that the law was enacted to 'ensure that only criminal forfeiture is allowed in this state.' The continued existence of Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture program 'subverts the NMFA’s clearly stated purpose'....

"In the wake of the decision, Santa Fe suspended its own DWI vehicle forfeiture program last week, which was the second largest in the state. Since the NMFA went into effect in 2015, Santa Fe seized nearly 1,600 vehicles, auctioning off 362 of them."

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