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ABQ Still Policing for Profit

'The City of Albuquerque does more civil asset forfeiture than any other area of the state,” and it isn't about to give up the $1.2 million worth of vehicles it seizes each year' -- Attorney Diego Esquibel


Although New Mexico has outlawed civil asset forfeiture, better known as “policing for profit,” there is still much criminal justice reform work to be done, says a panel of criminal justice experts.

The City of Albuquerque, for example, is ignoring the law, which took effect July 1, and continues to seize vehicles from DWI suspects who haven’t been convicted of a crime, according to attorney Diego Esquibel, one of the panelists assembled to discuss civil forfeiture.

The continuing reform needs to focus on rolling back so-called nuisance abatement laws, which are merely civil asset forfeiture under a different name; stopping the erosion of criminal intent, protections in laws; and ensuring that convicts who have served their time and paid their debt to society don’t keep paying, said the panelists at a civil asset forfeiture forum Wednesday sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute and the Rio Grande Foundation.

The good news was that New Mexico is the absolute leader in the nation when it comes to civil asset forfeiture reform and that other states — including Michigan, New Hampshire and Oklahoma, — are trying to copy this state’s model law that bars the practice on the state level, said Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the Koch Institute. New Mexico’s reform was pushed by a bipartisan group that included the ACLU, the Rio Grande Foundation, the Drug Policy Alliance and The Institute for Justice, and it sailed through the Legislature this year with almost no opposition, Reddy said.

Gov. Susana Martinez signed the bill earlier this year, but reluctantly so, the panelists said.

ACLU New Mexico Public Policy director Steve Allen called civil asset forfeiture “an atrocious violation of due process rights,” while Brad Cates, former director of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture office, called it an “institutionalized shakedown for money” because law enforcement agencies get to keep the money they take from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

“The City of Albuquerque does more civil asset forfeiture than any other area of the state,” and it isn’t about to give up the $1.2 million worth of vehicles it seizes each year, Esquibel said.

The city gets away with the practice by calling it “nuisance abatement.” It seizes 1,200 to 1,500 vehicles a year, which are then sold, Esquibel said. He added that it’s almost impossible to get a vehicle back. The easiest way is to pay the city $650 and agree to have the vehicle booted for six months. City hearing officers often tell residents whose cars have been seized that they can go to a hearing, but that they will most certainly lose, Esquibel added.

Rio Grande Foundation Executive Director Paul Gessing told the audience at the Hotel Albuquerque that much more must be done in the state, especially when it comes to reforming the entire criminal justice system.

Reddy said that at the national level, laws are being written without the usual protection that the intent of the alleged offender must be taken into account. That’s a legal principle known as Mens rea, and it means that intent has to be taken into account when deciding to charge a person with a crime. If a person does something that he didn’t know was illegal, that mitigates the situation, Reddy said. But new laws coming out of Congress and state legislatures contain no such traditional protections. States, including New Mexico, should pass default Mens rea laws that apply to all criminal offenses, Reddy added.

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat, praised the bipartisan effort that got the civil asset forfeiture law through the Legislature but, but he said more needs to be done to protect people who have been convicted of crimes and have paid their debt to society. In today’s Internet age with instant access to information, a past conviction, or civil fine, is easy to find, and employers use that information to deny former convicts jobs and housing, Maestas said.

— Dennis Domrzalski

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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