Last spring, New Mexico’s governor signed a bill into law that would prevent law enforcement from seizing people’s assets without securing a criminal conviction. This was likely prompted by the New York Times’ publication of footage from Las Cruces asset forfeiture seminar in which the speaker basically said asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement to “shop” for things they want.
Several months later, the city of Albuquerque was sued by state legislators because its police refused to stop seizing assets — mainly vehicles — without obtaining convictions. The city claimed the new law only applied to state police, and anyway, it was only performing a valuable community service by taking cars away from members of the community.
“Our ordinance is a narrowly-tailored nuisance abatement law to protect the public from dangerous, repeat DWI offenders and the vehicles they use committing DWI offenses, placing innocent citizens’ lives and property at risk,” city attorney Jessica Hernandez said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “The ordinance provides defenses to forfeiture to protect innocent owners and has been upheld by the courts.”
Here’s what really happens when the Albuquerque police blow off state law and perform “nuisance abatement.”
After her son was arrested in April for drunk driving while at the wheel of her borrowed Nissan Verso, Arlene Harjo, 56, found herself in court being told that she had to transfer ownership of the car to the city, or else settle the case for $4,000 to get it back.
Those are the “defenses.” Sign your car over or pay a fine large enough to discourage most people from recovering their vehicles. Note that the vehicle’s owner wasn’t suspected of any criminal activity. And there’s nothing in The Guardian’s story that suggests her son had even been convicted or pled guilty before the city demanded she relinquish ownership of her car.
For most people, $4,000 is an insurmountable obstacle. What makes this even worse is Arlene Harjo is still on the hook for the loan covering the vehicle she can’t use.
Harjo has found herself stuck in a bureaucratic labyrinth in which she is making loan payments on a car as it sits in a government impound. On top of that, if she signs over ownership to the city, for resale, she will still have to keep making loan payments for a car she no longer possesses.
On top of that, even if Harjo comes up with $4,000, she still won’t be able to use the car. C.J. Ciaramella of Reason (who broke the story) has more details on the city’s vindictively-slanted legal playing field.
In Harjo’s case, the city offered to give her car back in exchange for $4,000 andhaving it booted for 18 months.
And here’s the “defenses to forfeiture” the city claims makes the process equitable.
At her hearing, Harjo was supposed to have a neutral arbiter, but the Chief Hearing Officer in Albuquerque is Stanley Harada, the same person who crafted the city’s asset forfeiture program back when he was a city attorney.
Harada lectured Harjo, arguing she shouldn’t have trusted her son, according to audio of the hearing. Harjo’s son had several drunk driving offenses in the past, but the last one occurred in 2009.
“By providing him with a vehicle you’re taking a big, big risk,” Harada said. “This law is here to try and prevent people from getting killed and injured.”
It seems like the best way to keep people from being killed and injured is to take drunk drivers off the street, rather than a third party’s vehicle — one that hasn’t been known to kill or injure anyone when driven by its owner.
Why is this system — which may still be found to be illegal under state law — so antagonistic to people in Harjo’s situation? Because it is designed from the ground up to feed money directly to the same law enforcement entities that perform the seizures.
According to last year’s lawsuit against the city, Albuquerque forecasts how many vehicles it will not only seize, but sell at auction. The city’s 2016 budget estimates it will have 1,200 vehicle seizure hearings, release 350 vehicles under agreements with the property owners, immobilize 600 vehicles, and to sell 625 vehicles at auction.
In fact, the Albuquerque city council approved a $2.5 million bond to build a bigger parking lot for cars seized under the DWI program. The revenue to pay for the bond will come from the DWI program.
As Ciaramella points out, the city of Albuquerque currently seizes around 1,000 cars a year and city law enforcement directly benefits from the $8.3 million the program has brought in since 2010. The incentives are completely broken. The city isn’t interested in scaling back its seizures because it has already decided how many cars it needs to take possession of to hit its budget numbers for this year. Without a ruling declaring these seizures illegal under state law, Albuquerque police (when not shooting a bunch of the city’s residents) will be viewing every minor traffic stop as an opportunity to take another “criminal” vehicle off the streets.