The New Mexico legislature passed a bill on Saturday which will change the way authorities are able to seize property under civil asset forfeiture rules. HB 560, introduced by Representative Zachary J. Cook (R-N.M.), is designed to curtail the practice of civil asset forfeiture and ensure that it is only used against criminals while applying strict rules of due process.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which authorities are permitted to confiscate the property of an individual suspected of a crime. The key word being suspected, meaning no conviction, warrant, or proof is required to take control of the property. This property, once taken, goes to the department that performed the confiscation, thereby padding their budget.
A person who has their property taken in such a way must engage in lengthy and often times expensive legal proceedings in order to prove the property had no connection to a crime.
Things may soon be different in New Mexico.
Under the new law, authorities will first have to convict an individual of a crime or prove the property was used in a crime in order to take it. Additionally, the money will go to a general state fund instead of the individual police budgets in order to remove the profit incentive.
As it stands the bill only requires the signature of Governor Susana Martinez in order to become law. Given the short legislative sessions in New Mexico, this will likely be the only opportunity to pass such a reform for the next few years. If it passes, HB 560 will become a milestone in the nation-wide effort to change civil asset forfeiture laws.
Billions of dollars have been taken under civil asset forfeiture since the eighties, when the rules were expanded. Though it will take the combined efforts of the state and federal governments to rectify the problem, measures like the one passed over the weekend will go a long way to protect individuals from government overreach.