Pubdate: Sat, 28 Mar 2015
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Authors: Ryan Boetel and Dan Boyd
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Law Enforcement Seeks Veto of Legislation Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture

SANTA FE - Prompted by calls from across the political spectrum, New 
Mexico lawmakers took aim during this year's 60-day legislative 
session at civil asset forfeiture - decried by some as "policing for profit."

The measure, which was approved unanimously by the House and Senate, 
would prevent law enforcement from seizing money, cars or other types 
of property from people on civil grounds during an arrest or traffic 
stop on suspicion the property was connected to a crime.

The practice has funneled millions of dollars and property to state 
and local law enforcement agencies, which are now scrambling to ask 
Gov. Susana Martinez to veto the measure.

The forfeitures occur in various kinds of cases. For example, 
Albuquerque police stopped a father and son from Illinois for not 
signaling a turn and called in a federal agent who seized $17,000 in 
cash from them, though the men were never charged with a crime. The 
American Civil Liberties Union intervened and the men got their money 
back two years later.

The measure, House Bill 560, would not prevent forfeiture - of cars, 
houses or other assets - in criminal cases when a defendant is found 
guilty. It would, however, require proceeds from forfeitures to be 
put into the state's general fund instead of being used to bolster 
individual law enforcement agencies' budgets.

The bill creates a mechanism for individuals found not guilty to seek 
to reclaim their seized property upon acquittal.

During the session, an unlikely coalition of backers supported the 
bill. The alliance included the ACLU of New Mexico, the Drug Policy 
Alliance and the Rio Grande Foundation, an Albuquerque-based group 
that favors limited government and open markets.

While there was little formal opposition to the bill, law enforcement 
agencies across the state are lining up and asking Martinez to veto 
the measure.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales made that request in a 
letter sent to the governor Thursday.

"The passing of this legislation would cause a financial hardship on 
our department," Gonzales said in the letter. "These monies are 
currently utilized to combat and thwart criminal activity such as 
drug trafficking and violent crimes."

San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen, the chairman of the New 
Mexico Sheriff's Association, said the organization is drafting a 
letter that asks for a veto. And Rick Tedrow, the district attorney 
in San Juan County and president of the New Mexico District 
Attorney's Association, said the DA's association also will ask for a veto.

'A big deal'

"It's a big deal to us. This bill would take money out of (law 
enforcement agencies') hands and put it in the state general fund and 
we'll never see it again," Christesen said. "A lot of equipment and 
overtime wouldn't happen because the counties don't have the money. 
You'll get less law enforcement."

Christesen said it's common practice across the state for agencies to 
seize money and property during drug-trafficking cases, and then put 
that money back into narcotics investigations to make undercover 
purchases and pay investigators' overtime.

The state Department of Public Safety, in a fiscal analysis of the 
bill, warned the legislation would eliminate revenue that is 
"critical" to funding the agency's investigations and operations. And 
the Law Offices of the Public Defender said it could need more 
funding to handle a likely uptick in forfeiture cases.

Supporters of the legislation, however, said seizing property from 
people who haven't been convicted of a crime is unfair and should be 
brought to a stop.

Former Attorney General Hal Stratton, who testified in support of the 
bill in a House committee, said he helped craft the state's 
forfeiture law while a member of the Legislature in the 1980s.

But he said that legislation was intended as a crimefighting tool, 
not as a pretext for property to be seized from innocent individuals.

Steven Robert Allen, director of public policy for the ACLU of New 
Mexico, said recorded comments of a Las Cruces city attorney that 
were published in The New York Times last year increased public 
interest in the issue, but he said work on the bill already was underway.

"The system ... is completely indefensible from a due process 
perspective and a property rights perspective," Allen said.

The city attorney, Harry Connelly, was recorded at a conference 
talking about undercover officers ogling a suspected drunken driver 
with a "beautiful" Mercedes.

"And he gets out and he's just reeking of alcohol. And it's like, 'Oh 
my goodness, we can hardly wait,'" he said.

Millions at stake

Albuquerque-area law enforcement agencies have received millions from 
seizures in recent years and they've been involved in controversial cases.

Since the 2010 fiscal year, Albuquerque police have received $11.6 
million from forfeitures, while the Bernalillo County Sheriff's 
Office netted $2.1 million, according to city and county documents.

That money stems from seizures in cases where officers and deputies 
working alongside federal agents get a portion of property seized 
during investigations, typically drug trafficking cases, as well as 
from seizing vehicles from people suspected of repeat drunken driving.

Rio Rancho recently passed a DWI seizure law that is set to take 
effect in July unless state seizure laws are changed, said Rio Rancho 
police Lt. Paul Rogers.

The BCSO was ordered to pay $3 million in damages in 2011 when a 
District Court judge ruled the agency was violating state laws in the 
way it was seizing property during traffic stops.

And Albuquerque is facing a class action lawsuit over allegations its 
DWI seizure program has confiscated the vehicles of "innocent owners" 
who owned the car but had nothing to do with the DWI.

Albuquerque police officer Tanner Tixier, a police spokesman, said 
the department has not asked the governor for a veto or taken an 
official stance on the bill. Police and city officials declined 
interview requests on the bill.

Colin Hunter, an Albuquerque attorney who has filed a class action 
lawsuit against Albuquerque for its DWI seizures, said the bill will 
rein in seizures in Albuquerque if signed into law.

"The city's not going to pony up and do this if they have to give the 
money to the state," he said.

The bill was approved unanimously by the House and Senate during the 
session that ended March 21, though it was not passed in the Senate 
until the session's final day.

The governor told reporters at a news conference an hour after the 
Legislature adjourned that she plans to review the legislation, but 
did not offer any indication as to whether she will sign it.

"I'll have to look at it," said Martinez, who has until April 10 to 
act on legislation approved during the session's final days. A 
spokesman for the governor declined to comment further.

Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, the bill's sponsor, said public awareness 
of the issue has increased due to several highprofile recent incidents.

"Law enforcement agencies, at least some of them, are abusing the 
system," said Cook, an attorney. "When you have cases of the 
government seizing property without charges, people's ears perk up."

"Clearly, we have to be cautious when we provide the government with 
this kind of power and authority," said Stratton, a Republican who 
served as attorney general from 1987 through 1990.

Stratton also said this year's bill is not "anti-law enforcement" 
legislation, adding law enforcement groups should be adequately 
funded by state and local governments, and should not be reliant on 
seizures to help balance their budgets.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom