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article imageNM Police unhappy about new law that prevents property seizures

By Megan Hamilton     Jul 7, 2015 in Politics
Santa Fe - Law enforcement agencies in New Mexico are complaining that a new state law that prevents them from seizing assets from people unless they are convicted of a crime is wreaking havoc on agency budgets.
Police departments are claiming that the new civil forfeiture law, which took effect this month, will mean less money for resources, KOB4 reports.
Under this law, police cannot seize a suspect's property unless it's been proven that a crime occurred.
Prior to House Bill 560 becoming law, police and other law enforcement agencies in New Mexico could auction items that they seized and use the revenue to pay for training and equipment, The Daily Times reported. This was how one-fourth of the Region II Narcotics Task Force's operational procedures were financed each year — to the tune of about $100,000, says Sgt. Kyle Dowdy, task force director.
Region II will now lose this money each year, and several other law enforcement agencies also stand to lose out, as the new law requires them to store seized items and then ship them to the state Treasurer's Office in Santa Fe or auction them locally. The revenue earned is then transferred to the state's general fund.
Agencies will also not be compensated for storage or shipment of seized items, and this expense hasn't been calculated by the Farmington Police Department, Chief Steve Hebbe said, adding that it's an unfunded mandate.
"We're going to try not to seize," he said.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Zach Cook (R-Ruidoso) in a recent legislative session, passed the House and Senate unanimously. Efforts by The Daily Times to contact Cook by phone were unsuccessful.
Under this new law, police must first prove that the person they arrested committed a crime before they can seize the person's property — something that they didn't have to consider before.
This addresses a philosophical question, says Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington):
"Should people's property be seized and potentially even sold without there being a trial and proof of guilt?"
"No," he says, and the new law protects people from such seizures, he adds.
For Montoya, law enforcement was a primary focus in the recent regular legislative session, but he said that lawmakers weren't aware of the bill's negative impacts until later in the process. No law enforcement authorities testified in the House about its impacts, he said. Senator Steve Neville, (R-Aztec), says he also can't recall any debate regarding this in the Senate.
Hebbe, however, said no police chiefs were asked about the potential impact of the bill, and none gave testimony, The Daily Times reports.
"I don't think that they anticipated how much it's going to hit local law enforcement, and we're still trying to figure out how bad it's going to hit us," he said.
While Montoya indicated that he wants to talk with law officials to find a solution for this problem, he also said that suggestions must consider the essence of the law, which is to protect the public.
"If this is going to affect them this adversely, we need to take a look at it," he said. "I'm not suggesting repeal."
Nationwide, civil forfeiture laws provide law enforcement with plenty of incentives to seize property, and penalizes innocent people, most especially low-income people of color, ThinkProgress reports. No type of property of any sort is off-limits and cash, cars, and even houses are routinely seized. In many cases, law enforcement agencies collect assets under the guise of drug enforcement.
State Director Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance's office in New Mexico, had this to say:
"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."
New Mexico passed the Forfeiture Act in 2002, and this was supposed to prevent law enforcement agencies from incorporating assets into their budgets by requiring them to deposit the assets into a general state fund. However, state and local police managed to work around the law. When the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, published its "Policing for Profit," in 2012, it found that New Mexico collected on average, $2,421,827 per year in assets. The law firm assigns letter grades to states based on forfeiture laws and practices, and New Mexico is one of 29 states that earned a "D."
In one particularly nasty instance, New Mexico law enforcement tormented two black men — a father and his son who were on a road trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico reports..
In Sept. 2010, officers twice detained Stephen Skinner and Jonathon Breasher. The officers insulted them with racial epithets and colluded with federal officials to seize almost $17,000 in cash. Neither Skinner or Breasher were charged with a crime.
The men's ordeal began when they were pulled over in Raton, NM by a New Mexico State Trooper for allegedly driving five miles over the speed limit. The officer issued them a written warning and then asked to search their vehicle. They consented and the trooper found $16,395 in cash intended for their trip in their luggage. Then he interrogated both men aggressively, called in a drug dog, partially disassembled their rental car and notified the Drug Enforcement Agency. On a tape on the trooper's belt, he can be heard referring to Skinner, who was nearly 60 at the time, as "boy."
Having detained the two men for nearly two hours at the side of the road, the troopers released them with the warning that "it wasn't over yet." When Skinner and Breasher made their way to Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Police Department pulled them over for an "improper lane change." Within minutes, a federal Homeland Security officer arrived on scene, seized the money in their luggage, and declared their assets as forfeit to the government. Next, they seized the men's rental car and dropped them off at an airport, stranded with no money or transportation, the ACLU reports.
"I think they stopped us because we were two black people," Skinner said. "I've never been treated that way before. That one officer addressed me as "boy" — I'm sixty years old. I've never been in trouble before. I pay my taxes, worked all my life, raised my kids, tried to do what's right — I feel violated."
Fortunately, when the ACLU of New Mexico stepped in on the men's behalf in 2012, the government agreed to return all of the money that had been seized.
You can check out their ordeal here:
Skinner and Breasher's case ended on an up note, but as the Washington Post notes here, forfeiture laws can be bring in enormous sums of money.
Cash seizures can be conducted under state or federal civil law. One of the most consistent ways that police departments seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level is through a Justice Department civil asset forfeiture program known as Equitable Sharing. This program has been in place for decades, but gained a much more prominent role after 9/11.
The Washington Post found that there has been 61,998 cash seizures conducted on highways and elsewhere, since 9/11, without search warrants or indictments because of this program, and the amounts of money seized total more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept over $1.7 billion of that, while the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and other federal agencies kept $800 million. And half of the seizures were under $8,800.
Clearly, New Mexico's civil forfeiture law is a good start, but it's a drop in an ocean-sized bucket that sometimes financially drowns innocent people.
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