March 25, 2015

Bipartisan asset forfeiture bill awaits signature

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The 2015 New Mexico Legislative Session was marked with partisan divides. Both Democrats and Republicans left the session pointing fingers and placing blame across the aisle.

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A rare exception to the lose-lose scenario was a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at reforming the state’s Forfeiture Act. HB 560, sponsored by Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, addresses a national concern about police seizing money or property from individuals without the conviction of a crime.

While the bill passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote, some committee members wondered if asset forfeiture is a problem in New Mexico. Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank focusing on New Mexico, told New Mexico Political Report that comments made by the Las Cruces city attorney last year show that New Mexico indeed has a problem with asset forfeitures.

Gessing said there are probably numerous instances of individuals losing property and money to police that go unreported. Of Cook’s legislation, Gessing said,“It rights the situation between the police and the people.”

In addition to the Rio Grande Foundation, Cook’s bill also gained support from former New Mexico District Attorney Hal Stratton, the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, agreed with Gessing that there are likely many cases of unlawful seizures that go unreported. Simonson told New Mexico Political Report in a phone interview that often times legal fees exceed the amount of money or the cost of property taken. Simonson praised the bipartisan legislation as a way to hold law enforcement officers accountable.

“The important thing, is [the bill] is going to end this unfair practice,” Simonson said.

According to Simonson, the bill does not stop police from confiscating money or property suspected of being used in illegal activities. If the bill is passed into law police would be required to issue a receipt of what was seized, something Simonson said would add more accountability.

“One of the really important things is that it would create transparency for the public,” he said.

In an op-ed, John Yoder and Brad Cates, both former directors Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, wrote that law enforcement has been using seized cash and vehicles to fund their respective departments.

“Law enforcement agents and prosecutors began using seized cash and property to fund their operations, supplanting ge

revenue, and this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than on an even-handed effort to enforce the law.

Many Americans are familiar with old-time speed traps, which became so notorious that most state legislatures reformed their systems to require local police and courts to deposit traffic fines into the state treasury to avoid the appearance of biased justice. Today, the old speed traps have all too often been replaced by forfeiture traps, where local police stop cars and seize cash and property to pay for local law enforcement efforts. This is a complete corruption of the process, and it unsurprisingly has led to widespread abuses.”

Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, has not spoken publicly about asset forfeiture reform and her office did not reply to emails from New Mexico Political Report.

When asked about it at her post-session press conference, Martinez did not know if she would sign the legislation.

Both Simonson and Gessing said they hope the bipartisan support will encourage Martinez to sign the bill into law.