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Policing the Police in New Mexico

When important changes in the law occur, it can be tempting to declare victory and go home. But that has never been the IJ way. We are in it for the long haul and always make sure that pro-freedom reforms have their desired effect, as our latest lawsuit in New Mexico demonstrates.

Liberty & Law readers are well familiar with IJ’s campaign to end civil forfeiture at the state and federal levels. We scored an important victory in that fight in May 2015, as New Mexico became the first state in recent history to effectively abolish its civil forfeiture program. Now, IJ is filing suit to make sure that local police and prosecutors actually adhere to those reforms. 

The reform bill itself was the product of hard work and creative thinking by IJ. We uncovered video in late 2014 of a New Mexico city attorney speaking at a civil forfeiture conference. The city attorney claimed that law enforcement officials could be “czars” if their forfeiture programs were expanded to take in more “little goodies.” Although these musings laid bare the perverse profit incentive at the heart of civil forfeiture, they would have disappeared, unnoticed, but for IJ’s communications team, which brought them to the attention of The New York Times.

Legislators in New Mexico wanted to transform the resulting public outrage into action. Fortunately, IJ’s legislative team had already crafted model legislation to end civil forfeiture. Legislators in New Mexico took that bill and, with some minor tweaks, introduced it on the floor. And when law enforcement sought to stymie the bill, IJ Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath counseled the legislators on how to outmaneuver the foes of liberty. In the end, both houses of the Legislature voted unanimously in favor of the bill, and Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, reluctantly signed it into law.

But the fight was far from over. Before the ink on the bill was dry, several municipal officials in New Mexico announced they would not follow the law, wrongly believing it only applied to state officials—even though the law clearly abolishes civil forfeiture throughout the state. 

Municipal officials have millions of reasons not to follow the law: In Albuquerque, for instance, the city’s vehicle forfeiture program brings in more than $1 million per year.

Albuquerque’s program is a veritable civil forfeiture machine. The city seizes vehicles based on mere suspicion of a crime and then forces property owners to pay a $50 fee just to get a hearing. At the hearing, property owners must prove their own innocence to get their property back. And they must make that showing to an administrative hearing officer, an employee of the city who has been a vocal defender of the city’s program in the press.

Incredibly, even if property owners succeed in proving their innocence, they can be charged storage fees of up to $10 per day. Those storage fees only grow larger the longer property owners fight, and in some cases, fees can surpass the value of the car.

Albuquerque’s program is now illegal and it has to end. That is why on November 18, 2015, IJ sued Albuquerque on behalf New Mexico state Sens. Lisa Torraco and Daniel Ivey-Soto, who were at the forefront of the law’s passage.

Our claim is simple: The recent reforms apply throughout the state, including in Albuquerque and other recalcitrant cities. Victory will end not only Albuquerque’s forfeiture program but similar programs across New Mexico. And IJ will continue to keep watch to make sure.

Rob Frommer is an IJ attorney.

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