Police In New Mexico Will No Longer Seize Your Property Without Finding You Guilty Of A Crime

Los Alamos police officer Doug Ehler peers through binoculars to look at smoke from the Las Conchas fire in Los Alamos, N.M.,
Los Alamos police officer Doug Ehler peers through binoculars to look at smoke from the Las Conchas fire in Los Alamos, N.M., Tuesday, June 28, 2011. A vicious wildfire spread through the mountains above a northern New Mexico town on Tuesday, driving thousands of people from their homes as officials at the government nuclear laboratory tried to dispel concerns about the safety of sensitive materials. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) on Friday signed a bill into law overhauling the state's civil asset forfeiture program, which had previously allowed police to permanently seize property without a conviction or charging the owner with a crime.

Set to go into effect in July, House Bill 560, passed last month with broad bipartisan support in the state legislature and signed by Martinez just before Friday's noon deadline, requires authorities to obtain a conviction or guilty plea before permanently seizing property. It also reforms incentives for civil asset forfeiture, channeling proceeds to the state's general fund rather than directly to police department coffers.

In her signing statement, Martinez said the bill will "improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners." But she also expressed concerns with the use of the term “policing for profit” -- popularized by critics of civil asset forfeiture -- calling it "an overused, oversimplified, and cynical term that, in my opinion, disrespects our law enforcement officers."

Prior to the passage of HB 560, the state's civil asset forfeiture laws earned a D+ rating from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that focuses on civil liberties. In a statement explaining its grade, the Institute for Justice claimed that "New Mexico has some of the worst laws in the nation for encouraging this abuse [of civil asset forfeiture]." It cited weak protections for property owners and an incentive system that sent 100 percent of proceeds to the police department responsible for a seizure.

“This is a good day for the Bill of Rights,” said ACLU of New Mexico Executive Director Peter Simonson in a statement. “For years police could seize people’s cash, cars, and houses without even accusing anyone of a crime. Today, we have ended this unfair practice in New Mexico and replaced it with a model that is just and constitutional.”

With the new civil asset forfeiture provisions going into effect this summer, Washington Post reporter Radley Balko says New Mexico is set to become "the most Fifth Amendment-friendly state in the country."

As The New York Times reported on Thursday, HB 560 has attracted criticism from members of the law enforcement community in New Mexico. The state Department of Public Safety claimed the resulting reduction in funds received through civil asset forfeiture would jeopardize drug investigations and result in “less training, less resources, less equipment, and a reduction of criminal investigations."

Criticism over the use of civil asset forfeiture has mounted over the past year, as sweeping investigations in the Post and Times uncovered widespread and questionable applications of the legal process. In many of the cases examined around the nation, police seized cash in amounts as little as $2,400, without any conclusive proof the money was connected to criminal activity. The burden of proof was then placed on the owner, who would have to go through a long and expensive legal process to prove the cash was obtained legally.

While HB 560 has effectively abolished civil asset forfeiture in New Mexico, many states around the nation still permit local authorities to seize assets with seeming impunity.

This story has been updated with comment from Simonson.



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