A district judge in Albuquerque ruled on Saturday the city’s civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, arguing that it forces residents to prove their innocence to reclaim their own vehicles. Under civil seizure legislation, officers can confiscate any asset just under the suspicion of the property being linked to illegal activity, without a warrant or a conviction.
Federal Judge James Browning sustained that the city of Albuquerque “has an unconstitutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget.” He adds that, “The more revenues they raise, the more they can spend.”
The forfeiture, settlements, and fees of the asset forfeiture program have added up to 11.8 million in proceeds from 2009 to 2016.
In 2016, the Institute of Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of Arlene Harjo, whose car was subject to seizure after her son was drunk driving. Her case is one of the thousands of residents whose vehicles were confiscated due to the city’s biased civil asset forfeiture legislation.
Given that the system is in the state’s side of the bargain, many property owners submit to settle. In Albuquerque, car owners must pay for an administration hearing plus a daily fee for the lot of the seized vehicle. Public attorneys are not accessible because the cases are ‘civil’, which make the defendant pay for a lawyer or represent himself.
People are innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.
“Today’s ruling is a total victory for fairness, due process and property owners everywhere,” said attorney Robert Everett Johnson at the Institute for Justice. “The judge rules that law enforcement cannot benefit financially from revenue generated by a forfeiture program. Together, these rulings strike at the heart of the problem with civil forfeiture.”
Officials offered to return Harjo her car for $4,000, but she refused to pay. However, the city gave her back attempting to keep the civil forfeiture program and disrupt her lawsuit moot.
New Mexico prohibited civil asset forfeiture in 2015, but the city of Albuquerque sustained it excluded state law, as it ruled by its city codes, and persisted the car seizure.
Judge Browning issued an opinion in March allowing the case to proceed. He stated that Harjo had raised allegations that Albuquerque’s profit incentive and hearing procedure violated her constitutional rights.
The city’s officials then announced they were putting an end to the civil forfeiture program.
The fourteenth amendment is a crucial lynchpin of our constitutional rights. States cannot deprive citizens of their property without due process of the law.