New Mexico Gov. Martinez Reins in Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse

Published May 19, 2015

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) signed into law one of the nation’s most sweeping reforms of civil asset forfeiture, responding in part to taped footage of a local city attorney advising local police officers how to use the law enforcement tactic to increase revenue.

‘Platinum Standard’ Laws

Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath says New Mexico’s civil asset forfeiture laws are now among the best in the nation.

“New Mexico has enacted the platinum standard for reform,” McGrath said. “Other states should emulate New Mexico and enact comprehensive reforms.”

McGrath says more than 25 states have begun reforming their civil asset forfeiture laws, but the story behind New Mexico’s reform is unique.

“A number of forces came together in New Mexico,” McGrath said. “The two big ones were the video of a local city attorney teaching members of law enforcement on how to profit from forfeiture, and the local advocacy of Brad Cates.

“Brad is a former [U.S.] Department of Justice prosecutor responsible for forfeiture litigation,” McGrath said. “He experienced a Damascene conversion and contributed significantly to the lobbying effort in Santa Fe.”

‘A Momentous Change’

Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing says the changes to New Mexico’s property seizure laws are overdue but welcome.

“I wasn’t convinced at the outset that we could get such a robust package of reforms, but I thought that if we just changed the incentives for police departments so that they no longer could use civil asset forfeiture to pad their own budgets, that would be a momentous change,” Gessing said.

Caught on Tape

Gessing says leaked footage of Las Cruces City Attorney Harry S. Connelly, Jr. played a key role in spurring the bill.

“The remarks by now-former Las Cruces City Attorney Harry S. Connelly, Jr. in which he made several outrageous statements relating to civil asset forfeiture played a big role,” Gessing said.  “Connelly said, in part, ‘We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business.'”

Model Legislation

Gessing says he hopes the victory for property owners and taxpayers in New Mexico will inspire other states to rein in policing-for-profit.

“New Mexico’s reforms were the very definition of bipartisan, with zero legislators in the Republican-controlled House or the Democrat-held Senate voting against it,” Gessing said. “It was signed into law by a Republican ex-prosecutor.

“If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” Gessing said.

Matt Hurley ([email protected]) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Internet Info:

Katherine Baicker and Mireille Jacobson, Journal of Public Economics, “Finders Keepers: Forfeiture Laws, Policing Incentives, and Local Budgets”: