Significant civil forfeiture reform in New Mexico went into effect on July 1, and law enforcement officials have predicted that their departments will be struggling to compensate for large cuts in their budgets due to the new law.
Before House Bill 560 was introduced and ultimately signed into law, police departments and other law enforcement agencies had the ability to seize cash, cars, luxury items, and homes with no requirement of obtaining a criminal conviction or even a criminal charge related to the items. Law enforcement officials would then turn these items over to sell at auctions. The proceeds from seized items sold at auction were used to purchase equipment and provide training. This practice has been described as “policing for profit”.
Last November, former Las Cruces, New Mexico city attorney Harry S. Connelly Jr. was heavily criticized after he was caught on video while holding a civil asset forfeiture seminar describing such items as “little goodies” and discussing excitement stemming from spotting a luxury car. “We always try to get, every once in a while, like maybe a good car,” Connelly said. “This guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new. Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.'”
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Connelly also admitted that he had worked with police to secure “wish list” items. “If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know- I’ll fight for it,” he had said. Connelly was later placed on leave and replaced by William R. Babington, Jr. as city attorney.
With the passage of HB 560, no items may be seized unless there is a criminal conviction or a guilty plea. Seized items must be placed in storage and then shipped to the state’s treasury office. Revenue collected from auctioned items will be placed in the state’s general fund rather than added to police budgets.
Farmington’s Daily Times reported that the civil forfeiture process had funded about a quarter of the Region II Narcotics Task Force’s operating budget- about $100,000 each year according to the task force’s director, Sgt. Kyle Dowdy. Dowdy said that now a plan must now be established to make up for the lost revenue, as well the consideration of a reduction in police purchases and training.
“We’re going to try not to seize,” Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said. Hebbe pointed out that the department has to cover the cost of item storage and shipment and called that provision an unfunded mandate.
Rep. Rod Montoya, (R-Farmington) said that no law enforcement agents had testified in the House to discuss consequences of the bill, while Hebbe said no police chiefs were contacted regarding to the bill’s impact. Hebbe said that he’s unsure of what impact the new law will have on police department budgets across the state. “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,” he said.