Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law a bill to end civil asset forfeiture in the state.
The signing came on the final day that she could act on bills passed this legislative session and came after a large amount of pressure to sign the bill.
In New Mexico, both the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Rio Grande Foundation supported the legislation. These two organizations are usually seen as being on the opposite side of ideological issues.
The story received national attention in recent weeks including a story in the New York Times. The Times had published video of the Las Cruces City Attorney talking about civil asset forfeiture.
In New Mexico, pressure mounted after The New York Times reported late last year on a video in which the Las Cruces city attorney described police officers trying to seize a late-model Mercedes-Benz and called Philadelphia’s asset forfeiture program “a gold mine.”
Law enforcement throughout the state opposed the bill. Despite this opposition, it passed both chambers unanimously.
The law now requires a conviction for any forfeiture to take place, whereas before assets could be seized and forfeited before a conviction under a civil process. The law also now says money from the forfeitures would go to the state general fund instead of the individual law enforcement agencies.
Though she signed the bill, Martinez wrote in an executive message that she took exception with some of the rhetoric around the legislation.
“I must make it clear that ‘policing for profit’ is an overused, oversimplified, and cynical term that, in my opinion, disrespects our law enforcement officers,” the former District Attorney wrote. “These heroes in our communities take on extraordinary risk, face incredible harm, and operate with tremendous courage, and this catch phrase improperly questions their motives and disregards their desire to serve and protect.”]
The full message is available below. Usually lengthy executive messages occur on legislation that the governor vetoes.
Martinez also seemed to address the aspect of the law that would put the money into the state general fund instead of towards the budgets of the law enforcement agencies.
“With the passage of this legislation, it is more critical than ever before that every county and municipality, as well as the state legislature, makes a stronger commitment to fully fund our law enforcement agencies so that they can continue undertaking complex investigations, protecting the public, and protecting themselves while doing so,” Martinez wrote.
Supporters of the legislation celebrated the signing of the bill into law and sent a statement.
“This is a good day for the Bill of Rights,” ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson said. “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 this law, New Mexico leads the nation in protecting the property rights of innocent Americans,” Paul Gessing, President of the Rio Grande Foundation, said. “Convicted criminals will still see the fruits of their crime confiscated by the state, but innocent New Mexicans can now rest easy knowing that their property will never be seized by police without proper due process.”
“New Mexico has succeeded today in reigning in one of the worst excesses of the drug war,” Emily Kaltenbach, State Director for Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office said. “Like other drug war programs, civil asset forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people of color who cannot afford to hire lawyers to get their property back. This law is an important step towards repairing some of the damage the drug war has inflicted upon our society and system of justice.”