By Phillip Smith
In a historic move, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) today signed into law a bill that will end civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement in the state, a practice widely known as "policing for profit." The measure is House Bill 560.
Under civil asset forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize someone's property without ever charging them with a crime, let alone convicting them. Police can then funnel many of those assets, including cash seizures, back to their own departments, creating a vicious cycle of more profit-driven law enforcement providing more resources to law enforcement for more profit-driven law enforcement.
"This is a good day for the Bill of Rights," said ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson. "For years police could seize people's cash, cars, and houses without even accusing anyone of a crime. Today, we have ended this unfair practice in New Mexico and replaced it with a model that is just and constitutional."
The practice of asset forfeiture has been coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism in recent years as cases of abuse become more widely known. The Obama administration Justice Department has in the past few months taken steps to address asset forfeiture abuse at the federal level, and asset forfeiture reform bills have been introduced in a number of states this year. The governor of Wyoming vetoed one last month.
New Mexico is the first state where such a bill has passed, and it now has the strongest asset forfeiture protections in the county. The bill passed the legislature unanimously.
Under the new law, civil asset forfeiture will be replaced with criminal forfeiture, forcing authorities to actually convict someone of a crime before taking his property.
"With this law, New Mexico leads the nation in protecting the property rights of innocent Americans," said Paul Gessing, President of the Rio Grande Foundation. "Convicted criminals will still see the fruits of their crime confiscated by the state, but innocent New Mexicans can now rest easy knowing that their property will never be seized by police without proper due process."
"New Mexico has succeeded today in reigning in one of the worst excesses of the drug war," said Emily Kaltenbach, State Director for Drug Policy Alliance's New Mexico office. "Like other drug war programs, civil asset forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people of color who cannot afford to hire lawyers to get their property back. This law is an important step towards repairing some of the damage the drug war has inflicted upon our society and system of justice."