In April, the city of Albuquerque seized Arlene Harjo’s car after police charged her son for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Harjo said she lent the car to her son after he asked to use it to go to the gym. Instead, he went to visit his girlfriend in Texas and was pulled over and arrested by police on his way back.
To get her car back, the city told Harjo she had to pay $4,000. Plus, city law enforcement would keep a boot on her car for a year and half before she could drive it again.
Unable to afford the $4,000, Harjo decided to fight it.
“It happens a lot,” Harjo said of the car seizures. “For me it’s like, I’m not a criminal and I didn’t do anything wrong by lending my son my car.”
Harjo is suing the city for violating her 14th Amendment rights, arguing that the city’s forfeiture program creates a financial incentive for the city “that deprives property owners of due process law.” She’s also accusing the city of violating a New Mexico law passed by state lawmakers last year that abolished civil forfeiture statewide.
She has an ally in the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based libertarian organization, which is legally representing her.
Harjo’s attorney, Robert Johnson, argued that Albuquerque’s DWI car seizure program is unconstitutional because it’s driven by a “pernicious profit incentive” for the city employees who are paid to seize cars from those driving in the city.
“We’re talking about city officials making a decision to take peoples’ cars whose salaries are paid by the revenues,” Johnson said. “If they don’t bring enough revenues, they can’t pay their salaries. You can imagine what kind of financial incentive that creates.”
City Attorney Jessica Hernandez argued that the city’s program is exempt from the state law. In a statement, she defended the seizure program as “narrowly-tailored” to “protect the public from dangerous, repeat DWI offenders and the vehicles they use to commit DWI offenses.”
“The ordinance provides protections for innocent owners to get their vehicles back at an early stage in the process,” Hernandez said in a statement. “Like all cases, we will review and evaluate this case’s individual circumstances.”
Harjo gets some help
The Institute for Justice decided to take on Harjo’s case after she filed a legal challenge the city’s seizure of her car on her own.
“Not many people have the wherewithal to file on their own in court,” he said.
Lawyers for Institute for Justice filed Harjo’s amended answer to the charge Tuesday in the Second Judicial District Court.
Many of Harjo’s friends have been in the same situation, according to her—getting their cars seized for a crime someone else committed in them. In all of those cases, they coughed up the money.
“Everybody abides by what they tell them to do,” she said.
The Institute for Justice previously worked on passing the 2015 civil asset forfeiture ban and on a lawsuit from two state senators to end Albuquerque’s car forfeiture program. A judge threw out the lawsuit in May, ruling that the state senators—Democrat Daniel Ivey-Soto and Republican Lisa Torraco, both of Albuquerque—didn’t have standing to sue in the case.
Aside from getting Harjo her car back without having to pay the city, the aim of her legal battle is to bring an end, at last, to the controversial Albuquerque program.
Over the last few months, Harjo said the city has many times tried to convince her to sign a disclaimer giving up her right to own her car. After she filed her initial answer to the car charge, the city began a discovery process where they gave Harjo a questionnaire asking for “intrusive” information like her salary, her landlord’s name and phone number and her educational background, Johnson said.
According to the lawsuit, Albuquerque seizes 1,000 cars and makes more than $1 million a year. The lawsuit cites figures stating that the city program brought in more than 8,300 cars and $8.7 million in fines between 2010 and 2014.
“It’s awful, all the money the city is making,” Harjo said. “They’re scamming and ripping people off.”
Read Arlene Harjo’s legal motion below: