Pubdate: Sat, 15 Nov 2014
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Ryan Boetel
Page: A1
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Officials Defend Practice, 'Stops Criminal Activity'

The amount of money the Albuquerque Police Department receives 
annually from federal forfeiture proceedings has doubled in the last 
five years, exceeding more than $1 million in the 2014 fiscal year, 
according to police records.

That money is in addition to what the city receives from seizing and 
sometimes selling vehicles used in repeat DWI cases. Overall, 
Albuquerque received about $11 million from 2010 through 2014 fiscal 
years from property seized by law enforcement, according to the records.

New Mexico law enforcement agencies' seizures of vehicles and other 
property received attention this week, when a New York Times story 
about the practices focused on a property-seizure forum held in Santa 
Fe in September.

At the conference, Las Cruces City Attorney Harry S. Connelly 
discussed police officers getting excited about "little goodies" and 
targeting a suspected drunken driver specifically because he was 
driving an expensive Mercedes.

"A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new. Just so beautiful, I 
mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like, 'Ahhhh.' And 
he gets out and he's just reeking of alcohol. And it's like, 'Oh, my 
goodness, we can hardly wait," he said at the conference, which was 
posted on the city of Santa Fe's website.

Albuquerque City Attorney David Tourek said APD officers don't have a 
financial incentive to seize in DWI cases. He said money from those 
seizures goes back into the forfeiture program, which pays for the 
salaries of attorneys and paralegals who litigate the cases.

Albuquerque police Deputy Chief Eric Garcia said APD doesn't target 
expensive assets in drug cases, either. Drug trafficking cases are 
the most common way for local law enforcement agencies to receive 
money from federal forfeiture proceedings.

"We target the criminals and the crimes, not the assets," he said.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office has yet to provide records 
requested Oct. 15 on property that deputies seized in recent years. 
In 2011, the county was ordered to pay $3 million in damages after a 
judge found deputies violated state law by confiscating money during 
traffic stops.

The money the deputies confiscated while working on an interagency 
task force had been funneled back to the BCSO after federal 
forfeiture proceedings.

Fed seizures, local money

Any state or local law enforcement agency involved in an arrest or 
prosecution that results in a forfeiture in federal court may request 
a share of the proceeds from the confiscated property, according to a 
Department of Justice guide on the practice.

The federal forfeiture funds Albuquerque received in recent years 
were the result of Special Investigation Division detectives 
partnering with federal agents to primarily target drug traffickers, 
said APD Cmdr. Les Brown, who oversees those detectives.

"It's a way to stop criminal activity," he said of property seizures. 
"They shouldn't be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They 
shouldn't be able to enjoy living off getting illicit funds by 
committing a crime."

Brown said the money from the program goes to SID detectives to 
purchase drugs and pay criminal informants as part of their investigations.

"When you are trying to target a large drug trafficking organization, 
you can't go buy a rock of crack. You have to buy a kilo ... to spark 
their interest," Brown said.

Practice under fire

Critics of civil forfeitures say the increase in funds from federal 
seizures that go to Albuquerque coffers in recent years is concerning.

"I think it's just that (Albuquerque police) have figured out there's 
good money to be made by arresting people and seizing their 
property," said Peter Simonson, the executive director for the ACLU 
in New Mexico.

The most recent time the ACLU got involved in an Albuquerque case was 
in 2010, when a father and son from Illinois had $17,000 in cash 
seized from their vehicle while they were passing through Albuquerque 
on their way to Las Vegas, Nev.

APD initiated the traffic stop, and a Homeland Security agent 
confiscated the money. The U.S. Attorney's Office started forfeiture 
proceedings; the ACLU intervened on the men's behalf and got their money back.

But APD officials said there hasn't been a similar case that raised 
questions about the federal forfeitures since that time.

"We haven't had anything like that since then. There's a lot of 
checks and balances in the system," Garcia said. "It's not just our 
detectives. You have the federal agents and the U.S. Attorney's Office."

DWI seizures

A city of Albuquerque ordinance allows the police to seize a vehicle 
while arresting someone with repeat DWI convictions.

The amount of money funneled into city coffers from DWI seizures has 
been decreasing in recent years.

In the 2010 fiscal year, Albuquerque got $1.8 million from DWI 
seizures. That number had dropped to $1.3 million in the 2014 fiscal 
year. But concerns remain. Colin Hunter, an attorney representing 
several people who filed a classaction lawsuit against the city over 
seized vehicles, said city laws give police a "perverse incentive" to 
confiscate vehicles to pad their budget.

The lawsuit is on behalf of "innocent owners," people whose cars were 
confiscated when other people were caught drinking and driving them.

Hunter also pointed to District Judge Clay Campbell's decision in 
November 2013 when he ruled the "ordinance violates due process and 
is thus unconstitutional."

Tourek disputed that it violates due process and said "innocent 
owners" have numerous ways to get their vehicles back. He said the 
DWI seizure program protects the public.

"It stops drunk drivers from getting back into the vehicle that they 
have been previously caught driving drunk in," he said.
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