J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 18, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—New Mexicans ended civil forfeiture this summer, or so they thought. Despite passing landmark legislation outlawing the use of civil forfeiture statewide, cities across the state are ignoring the law and continue to seize and keep individual’s property without convicting them of a crime. Now, a lawsuit filed today by a bipartisan pair of New Mexico State Senators seeks to shut down the city’s illegal civil forfeiture program once and for all.

Earlier this year, the New Mexico state legislature unanimously passed landmark legislation outlawing the controversial legal practice known as civil forfeiture, which allowed law enforcement officials to seize and keep private property without first obtaining a criminal conviction. The practice first attracted attention in New Mexico after a series of videos uncovered by the Institute for Justice revealed that city attorneys across the state were engaging in widespread policing for profit.

Despite the reforms, Albuquerque continues to flout the law and run a veritable civil forfeiture machine—a program that “earned” the city over $1 million last year. Property owners caught in this machine face a maze of procedural obstacles and a lopsided legal code that favors police and prosecutors at every turn. Civil forfeiture is big business; so big, in fact, that Albuquerque has refused to shut down its now-illegal program.

“The profit incentive created by civil forfeiture is so strong, officials charged with upholding the law are now the ones breaking it,” said Institute for Justice Attorney Robert Everett Johnson. “Albuquerque’s law enforcement officials seem to think that they are above the law. But if they won’t listen to the state legislature, they’ll have to answer to a judge.”

A new poll released today demonstrates that New Mexicans overwhelmingly oppose civil forfeiture. Eighty percent of New Mexicans agree that “no one should have their property taken by the police without being convicted of a crime.” Similarly, 79 percent of New Mexicans believe that “law enforcement agencies should not be allowed to profit by taking people’s property and keeping it for their own use.” The surveys were conducted in October by Google Consumer Surveys. See the complete survey.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed the legislation in April 2015, following a unanimous vote in both houses of the state legislature. The law replaced civil forfeiture, which does not require a conviction, with criminal forfeiture, which does. Under the reforms, government can only take property following a criminal conviction, and police and prosecutors can no longer keep the money that they seize.

In the State Senate, the law was championed by two state lawmakers, Lisa Torraco, a Republican, and Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat. They have partnered with the Institute for Justice to compel Albuquerque to end its use of civil forfeiture once and for all.

“Civil forfeiture is abolished,” said Senator Ivey-Soto, who represents residents in Albuquerque. “We know what we intended when we passed the reforms. And we didn’t include an exception for Albuquerque—or any other city.”

“No one is above the law, least of all our city attorneys who are charged with upholding it,” said New Mexico State Senator Lisa Torraco. “We shouldn’t have to file a lawsuit but if the City is going to willfully ignore the law, then we will step in to see that the reforms are implemented.”

New Mexico’s reforms now provide the strongest protections for property owners of any state in the country. Last week, the Institute for Justice released the second edition of Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Forfeiture. The report grades state civil forfeiture laws. New Mexico topped the nation, receiving an A- for its recent reform. The state had previously received a D-.

“Civil forfeiture takes the principle of innocent until proven guilty and flips it on its head, treating property owners worse than criminals by making them prove their innocence,” said IJ Attorney Robert Frommer. “Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement should not profit from taking people’s property.”