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New Mexico Ended Civil Asset Forfeiture. Why Then Is It Still Happening?


Let's revisit a state law that emerged out of criticism of the process police use to seize assets they suspect are linked to crimes and keep those assets without having to convict the owner of anything. It's called civil asset forfeiture. Critics say it's abused by local police departments that see forfeiture as a source of funding. And New Mexico made news last summer when it passed a law ending that practice. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on how the new law is working out.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The change in New Mexico's law is pretty straightforward. It says you can't lose your stuff to the government without being convicted of a crime. And yet, that's exactly what may happen to the Martinez family.

ASHLEY MARTINEZ: I, like, was begging the cop.

KASTE: That's Ashley Martinez describing the scene last December when Albuquerque police took her parents' 2006 Pontiac. She was out on a test drive to diagnose a transmission problem. A mechanic friend was at the wheel. He got pulled over. And that's when she found out that he had a revoked license for DWI. The officer told her that in Albuquerque, you can lose your car for that.

A. MARTINEZ: It didn't seem like he really wanted to take my car from me. It seemed like he kind of wanted to let me just take it. And then other cop came. And he was like no, she needs to get what she can out of that car. And that's it because she's not going to see it for a very long time.

KASTE: Now she and her parents sit around the dining table sifting through all the paperwork from the city. Her mother Cynthia doesn't understand the legal logic here, the fact that they stand to lose their car for the actions of somebody else. But that's how civil forfeiture works. The government can take possession of something that's believed to be connected to a crime, regardless of who actually owns that thing and whether or not there's been a conviction.

CYNTHIA MARTINEZ: Why should they take something that we worked hard for, you know, that I had nothing to do with and because they don't want to go by the laws that they're supposed to be following right now? They did away with this, right?

KASTE: Well, that's a question. Did New Mexico really do away with this kind of civil forfeiture? Lisa Torraco thought so. She's the family's lawyer in this. And she's also a Republican state senator. She helped to push through the new law that banned civil forfeiture without a conviction. So she was stunned when she found out Albuquerque was still taking cars like this.

LISA TORRACO: You know, it's kind of like one of those dreams. And you're just screaming and no one can hear you. You know, you're, like, stop. You know, this is a legal.

KASTE: She and another legislator sued the city to try to force it to obey the new state law. The suit was dismissed on technical grounds. But they may appeal with the help of an anti-civil forfeiture organization called the Institute for Justice. But Torraco says the city seems dead set on keeping its vehicle forfeiture program as is.

TORRACO: The only thing that I can think is that it is so much money. The cities and the counties are making so much money off of forfeiture that they don't want to give it up.

KASTE: Civil forfeiture is a growing moneymaker for local governments. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year nationally, though statistics for individual states are hard to get. Albuquerque raises about half a million a year from car forfeitures. And they're baked into its budget with annual targets. City officials wouldn't comment on tape. But in the past, they've called forfeitures an important weapon against drunk driving. And they say their municipal program is not affected by the new state law.

The police chiefs and sheriffs, meanwhile, are still puzzling over how this new state law even happened. Law enforcement's usually pretty good at defending civil forfeiture at state capitols. But somehow, this legislation got past them.

STEVE HEBBE: Nobody really knew about. The first I ever heard of it, it had already passed. It was waiting on the governor's signature. You know, we're like, oh, my God.

KASTE: That's Steve Hebbe, the police chief in Farmington, N.M. He's also on the executive board of the police chiefs association. Now, the chiefs are criticizing the law. But they don't say it's because they believe is civil forfeiture. Instead, they're going after it on logistical grounds. For instance, Hebbe says the police department's evidence rooms are filling up because the law has made it harder for police to dispose of things.

HEBBE: These would be things we would have maybe sold at auction or purged in some way. We would have maybe donated them to charities locally. But with the law in effect and with the wildly different interpretations of it, we haven't gotten rid of a thing.

KASTE: But the law's supporters suspect that these complaints are red herrings, a way for police to undermine the law without actually admitting that they're more concerned about the lost revenue. Democratic state Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto says he's open to tweaking the details, but the main goal of the law should remain in place.

DANIEL IVEY-SOTO: What I don't want want is for law enforcement to be put in a position, which I think is unfair position. And that is where they end up having to seize property and sell it to make their budget.

KASTE: He says it's time for states and cities to be honest about what law enforcement really costs and to fund it fully instead of expecting police to rely on forfeiture to pay some of the bills. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.