Federal Court Finds Albuquerque’s Civil Forfeiture Program Unconstitutional

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 30, 2018

In a ruling likely to have national implications, today a federal judge in Albuquerque has found that the city’s civil forfeiture program is unconstitutional. The ruling sets a precedent that calls into question countless other civil forfeiture programs across the country.

“Today’s ruling is a total victory for fairness, due process and property owners everywhere,” said IJ Attorney Robert Everett Johnson. “The court ruled the government must prove that an owner did something wrong before it can take away their property. Beyond that, the judge ruled that law enforcement cannot benefit financially from revenue generated by a forfeiture program. Together, these rulings strike at the heart of the problem with civil forfeiture. We will undoubtedly use this decision to attack civil forfeiture programs nationwide.”

Federal Judge James O. Browning found Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture program unconstitutional because the city’s ordinance violates the basic rule that citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Albuquerque places the burden on property owners to prove their own innocence. Independent of that, he also struck down the law because funds raised by the program are used to fund the program’s budget, which gives law enforcement officials an incentive to police for profit, rather than justice. He wrote, “the City of Albuquerque has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”

“I’m glad this is going to help people in the same situation,” said IJ client Arlene Harjo, on whose behalf the case was filed. “It’s totally wrong what the government is doing. Hopefully now more people will fight back, and courts will say this has to stop.”

The fight over civil forfeiture in Albuquerque began in 2015, when a series of videos uncovered by the Institute for Justice revealed that city attorneys across the state were engaging in widespread policing for profit. Following the release of the videos, the New Mexico state legislature unanimously passed landmark legislation outlawing civil forfeiture. Despite that groundbreaking legislation, Albuquerque law enforcement officials continued to seize and sell hundreds of cars each year—including Arlene Harjo’s Nissan Versa.

The city claimed it could take Arlene’s car because her son, Tino, asked to borrow her car to drive to the gym in the middle of the day, but then took the car for a day-long trip and was found that evening allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. Arlene does not approve of drunk driving; if Tino broke the law, she agrees he should be punished. But the city seized her car, and she did not see why she should be punished for something she did not do and never condoned.

So Arlene joined with the Institute for Justice in August 2016 to file a legal challenge to Albuquerque’s program, claiming that the program violates both the 2015 state law and the Constitution. The city returned Arlene’s car in December 2016, after it became clear that the car was actually outside city limits at the time that it was seized and therefore not even subject to the city’s jurisdiction. Arlene pressed forward with her broader legal challenge, however, and in March 2018 the court issued an opinion agreeing that Albuquerque’s program violates the 2015 reform law. Today’s opinion holds that Albuquerque’s program violates the Constitution as well.

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today,” said IJ Senior Attorney Robert Frommer. “For decades, civil forfeiture has lured officials away from impartial enforcement of the law and toward policing for profit. Today’s ruling striking down Albuquerque’s forfeiture program is a major step towards ending forfeiture not only across New Mexico, but throughout the United States.”

The Institute for Justice is aided by local counsel Brad Cates. IJ is leading the fight against civil forfeiture nationwide. To learn more about this case and IJ’s national efforts, visit www.ij.org or www.endforfeiture.com.