Challenging Illegal Forfeiture in New Mexico

Yesterday, we filed a lawsuit in New Mexico to shut down the City of Albuquerque’s illegal civil forfeiture machine.

Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture program is a civil liberties nightmare. The City takes over a thousand cars each year, and rakes in over $1 million, without having to convict anyone of a crime. The City claims authority to take cars where it simply suspects a crime has occurred–even if the alleged crime was not committed by the property owner.

That program is not just unfair to property owners. It’s also illegal. This past summer, the New Mexico state legislature passed legislation abolishing civil forfeiture. The opposition to civil forfeiture in the legislature was unanimous, and a rare case of both parties demanding the same remedy to the same problem. Citizens of New Mexico also overwhelmingly support these reforms: 80% agree police and prosecutors should have to convict you of a crime before taking your property.

But the City of Albuquerque is not following the law and has continued to take cars using civil forfeiture. As IJ attorney Robert Everett Johnson put it, “The profit incentive created by civil forfeiture is so strong, officials charged with upholding the law are now the ones breaking it.”

IJ has filed suit on behalf of two state senators, Lisa Torraco, a Republican, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat. Both senators come from Albuquerque, and both are former prosecutors and defense attorneys with intimate experience representing clients caught in Albuquerque’s forfeiture machine.
“It’s all about the conviction,” Torraco said. “The ramifications of taking property from people who are presumed innocent is tearing families apart.”

In the past five years alone, the city used forfeiture to seize over 8,000 vehicles and collect over $8 million. Most of that revenue goes into the salaries and other expenses of local law enforcement. One city attorney defended the taking of vehicles on the grounds that a specific city ordinance allows this type of seizure to continue in Albuquerque.

“Unless the Legislature or a court says very clearly that we’re not allowed to do it, then we’re going to do everything we can to protect our city from repeat DWI offenders,” City Attorney Jessica Hernandez told the Albuquerque Journal. “As long as we are legally able to do this, we will maintain the program, because we think it’s a way to keep our community safe and is legally allowed.”

This argument, of course, ignores the fact that civil forfeiture has been abolished in the state. The state legislature has spoken, and has abolished civil forfeiture. Now Albuquerque city attorneys need to listen.

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