For eight months, Arlene Harjo’s car sat in an impound lot in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Now, thanks to IJ, the city has given back the car. But this is not the end of the story: Arlene will continue to fight to shut down Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture machine.
Arlene’s story began early on a Saturday afternoon, in April 2016, when she let her son borrow her car to drive to the gym. Night came, and Arlene grew frantic as her son had not returned. The next morning, she learned her son had driven to see his girlfriend—not to the gym—and had been arrested for drunken driving.
Arlene committed no crime. But the city seized her car regardless, arguing that it was subject to civil forfeiture because her son had used it to break the law.
Arlene’s story is not unique. Albuquerque seizes over 1,000 cars every year and about half are owned by somebody other than the driver.
It gets worse. The city seizes all that property even though New Mexico passed landmark reforms in 2015 abolishing civil forfeiture. City officials are not following the law.
As longtime readers of Liberty & Law may remember, IJ laid the groundwork for New Mexico’s abolition of civil forfeiture. We exposed civil forfeiture horror stories in the state, helped to draft the reforms and shepherded them through the Legislature. Then, when we learned that Albuquerque was continuing to take property, we joined with two state senators to sue the city to enforce the law.
Not long after the city seized Arlene’s car, in May 2016, a judge dismissed IJ’s lawsuit on behalf of the senators because they had not personally had property seized. The timing was fortuitous. We found Arlene’s case through a search of public court documents, called her up and asked if she would join our fight.
Arlene agreed and became a plaintiff in a new lawsuit against the city.
Fast forward to December 2016. IJ filed court papers spelling out our full case against the city. One week later, city officials emailed to say they were returning Arlene’s car.
City officials said they had reviewed dashcam video of the seizure and belatedly realized that it had occurred outside city limits—meaning the city lacked jurisdiction to take the car in the first place.
If IJ had not sued on Arlene’s behalf, it seems safe to say that nobody from the city would ever have noticed this all-important fact.
The city sought to have Arlene’s lawsuit thrown out as a result of its confession, on the ground that Arlene (having recovered her car) was no longer being harmed. But, at a recent hearing, the court allowed the case to continue.
Arlene, after all, was harmed when the city held her car for eight months. The city cannot change that fact by giving the car back now.
So now Arlene has her car, and her lawsuit will go forward. Arlene—and IJ—will continue fighting until civil forfeiture in New Mexico is abolished once and for all.