New Mexico Lawmakers Sue City Over Illegal Asset Forfeiture Program

Published January 10, 2016

New Mexico lawmakers are suing the City of Albuquerque, alleging the city’s law enforcement agencies are violating the state’s recently reformed civil asset forfeiture laws.

In April 2015, Gov. Susana Martinez (R) signed House Bill 560 into law, ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture in the state. Since July 1, a criminal conviction is required before a government unit can take private property used during the commission of a crime.

A lawsuit filed by State Sens. Lisa Torraco (R-Albuquerque) and Daniel Ivey-Soto (D- Albuquerque) alleges the city’s driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) asset seizure program violates the new state law. They say the program’s seizures occur without criminal convictions.

Wrong Tool for the Job

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a public policy think tank, says the seizure program is more about protecting government’s financial health than improving public safety.

“It would seem that promptly delivered justice for repeat DWI offenders, and in the worst cases removing them from the streets entirely, would be more effective than vehicle seizure,” Gessing said.

Widespread Problem

Torraco says the problem is not limited to her hometown.

“There is no jurisdiction in the state that changed their civil asset forfeiture practice once the legislation was passed,” Torraco said. “No one has stopped. We have chosen just to sue Albuquerque, but in fact Bernalillo County just passed another forfeiture law, and now they are going to [force people to] forfeit cars for drag racing.”

Torraco says civil asset forfeiture is morally wrong.

“I believe that civil asset forfeiture is wrong,” Torraco said. “It is wrong for a government to take away the property of innocent citizens. I support criminal forfeiture. If the government can prove the person committed a crime using that property, then that property should be taken from them.”

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