Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Watch | Opinion

Albuquerque concedes forfeiture was illegal, continues with illegal forfeitures

December 22, 2016 at 12:39 PM

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Last year, New Mexico passed one of the most restrictive asset forfeiture laws in the country. It requires state and local governments to actually get a criminal conviction before they can take a suspect's property. It essentially does away entirely with "civil" asset forfeiture, a practice most people tend to find appalling once you convince them that it actually happens.

Somehow, Albuquerque didn't get the message. There's ample evidence that the city simply chose to ignore the law and continued with the seizures. It's easy to see why — over about five years, the city brought in more than $8 million in revenue by taking property from people who were never convicted of a crime. In some cases, it took cars from people who could prove they had nothing to do with the alleged crime associated with their automobile. Last November, two state lawmakers sued the city to make it stop.

Additionally, several citizens sued. One of them was Arlene Harjo, whose car was seized after her son was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence. With the assistance of the Institute for Justice, she went to court, and was scheduled to have a court date this week. Instead, the city conceded defeat and returned her car. (All the while, Harjo has had to continue to make payments on the car, despite not being able to use it.)

But the city's lawyers found a way to concede without giving a state court the opportunity to halt its continued flouting of the state law. The city claimed that Harjo's car was outside city limits when it was taken (and that the police officer who claimed otherwise wasn't telling the truth.) Therefore, the argument goes, the city didn't have jurisdiction to take the car. By admitting to violating one law, the city hopes to continue violating another. As the Institute for Justice attorney points out in the linked article, the city had no interest in determining whether the car was within city limits when police initially seized it, nor when the city demanded Harjo pay $4,000 to get it back. It was only when Harjo put millions of dollars of city revenue at risk that Albuquerque officials bothered to check whether the officer had broken a different law.

The good news is that the state judge rejected the city's request this week, and Harjo's lawsuit to halt the city's illegal forfeitures will continue. Ideally, this will end with not only a halt to the illegal forfeitures, but also an investigation into appropriate sanctions for the city officials who decided that the city didn't need to obey the law.


Radley Balko writes and edits The Watch, a reported blog covering civil liberties and the criminal-justice system. Previously, he was an investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and a writer and editor for Reason magazine. His most recent book is "The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South."

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