With Court Date Looming, Albuquerque Drops Civil Forfeiture Case and Returns Illegally Seized Car

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 22, 2016

Albuquerque—The City of Albuquerque has held Arlene Harjo’s silver Nissan Versa in an impound lot for the last eight months. Late Monday, the city admitted in a court filing that it acted illegally when it tried to take the car using civil forfeiture. Just in time for Christmas, Arlene is getting back her car.

This development comes just a week after Arlene and the Institute for Justice filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings asking the court to end Albuquerque’s use of civil forfeiture. But the city’s confession avoids the key issue in Arlene’s lawsuit, which is whether the city’s forfeiture program violates a 2015 state law abolishing civil forfeiture. Instead, the city now says that it reviewed the videotape of the seizure and determined that Arlene’s car was outside city limits when it was seized, meaning the city did not have jurisdiction over the seizure.

The city’s Monday filing argues that Arlene’s challenge to its forfeiture program must be thrown out of court as a result of its confession, as Arlene is no longer among the people being harmed by the program. In other words, because the city now admits that it acted illegally when it held Arlene’s car for eight months, the city says the court can no longer force it to comply with the 2015 reform law.

“We’re thrilled that Arlene is getting her car back,” said IJ attorney Robert Everett Johnson, who represents Arlene. “But this lawsuit has always been about more than a single car. Albuquerque’s illegal program takes thousands of cars every year. The city cannot make this case go away just by copping to the lesser charge of taking property outside its jurisdiction.”

The city has refused to provide Arlene’s attorneys with the videotape of the seizure. However, the city acknowledged in Monday’s filing that the police officer who seized the car previously testified that the seizure occurred within the city limits.

The city seized Arlene’s car in April 2016 after Arlene’s son was arrested for allegedly driving under the influence. Arlene was not accused of any crime, but the city claimed that they could forfeit her car because she lent it to her son and he broke the law. The city initially offered to return Arlene’s car if she paid $4,000, but Arlene refused. Three months later, she partnered with the Institute for Justice to challenge the city’s illegal use of civil forfeiture to raise more than $1 million in revenue every year. According to the city’s annual budget, money generated by the program goes to pay the salaries of the city attorneys who file forfeitures.

“I want to make sure no innocent person has to go through this again,” said Arlene. “The city took my car for no reason, and now they say the whole thing was a big mistake. That makes it worse, not better. Obviously I’m thrilled to be getting my car back, but that doesn’t make the last eight months go away.”

In 2015, New Mexico outlawed civil forfeiture, the controversial law enforcement practice of seizing and selling property without charging an individual with a crime, let alone convicting them of one. Despite that groundbreaking legislation, Albuquerque law enforcement officials continue to flagrantly disregard the law, and seize and sell hundreds of cars each year.

“Financial gain lies at the heart of Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture program,” said IJ attorney Robert Frommer, who also represents Arlene. “Nobody asked if the seizure was legal when the city stood to benefit. Nobody asked before demanding that Arlene pay $4,000. But now that the entire million-dollar program is on the line, of course they ask.”

The parties are scheduled to appear before the court for a status conference on Wednesday, December 21 at 8:30 a.m. They will hold a press conference following the hearing at 11:30 to discuss the future of the case and the city’s civil forfeiture program.