New Mexico Cops Bummed They Can't Just Steal People's Money Anymore

A New Mexico law that has just gone into effect bars police from seizing people's property without first convicting them of a crime, and the cops are already complaining. Equally bad, the cops say, is that when seizures are allowed, the money will now go to the state's general fund instead of to the law enforcement agency that seized it.


As the Farmington Daily Times reported, law enforcement is already yearning for the good old days. Without that incentive, they may just seize less stuff, and they might even reduce drug law enforcement, they said.

"We're going to try not to seize," said Farmington Police Chief  Steve Hebbe, warning that "I don't think that they anticipated how much it's going to hit local law enforcement, and we're still trying to figure out how bad it's going to hit us."

Sgt. Kyle Dowdy, director of the Region II Narcotics Task Force, told the newspaper that without the money generated from asset forfeitures, "the task force may have to reduce the amount of equipment it buys, such as wiretaps and cameras, and train less often." Such training "is essential to catching criminals who are constantly changing the methods they use to distribute drugs," he added.

Asset forfeiture proceeds fund an increasingly large portion of law enforcement budgets, creating a perverse incentive for cops to prioritize them. Dowdy's drug task force, for example, received a quarter of its budget from seizures, he said. But the Region II Narcotics Task Force is hardly alone in relying heavily on what it can take off citizens.

In a report on civil asset forfeiture abuses, Policing for Profit, the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice found that for more than 500 police departments and task forces around the country, seizures account for more than 20% of their operating budgets. And it's not just the states; the Federal Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Fund has ballooned from $27 million in 1985 to over $2 billion in 2013.

But now, New Mexico cops are cut out of that profitable loop, thanks to Mexico's House Bill 560, which passed the legislature unanimously this spring and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. That law didn't reform civil forfeiture; it abolished it. That's the way it should be, said Farmington's Republican state representative, Rod Montoya.

"Should people's property be seized and potentially even sold without there being a trial and proof of guilt?" he asked. "No."

The police will have to learn to live with it, and not just in New Mexico. A similar bill became law this year in Montana, and one passed in Wyoming, only to be vetoed by the governor. Minnesota and North Carolina are the only other states that completely ban civil asset forfeiture, but the clamor for reform is growing louder both in the states and in the Congress, where a bill introduced in both houses, the FAIR Act, would restrict, but not eliminate, civil asset forfeiture. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is the Senate sponsor. 

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