Gov. Susana Martinez (R.) of New Mexico signed a bill into law Friday ending the state’s civil asset forfeiture program, making New Mexico the latest state to rein in the practice.
Asset forfeiture, a process by which police can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, has come under fire from civil liberties groups who argue it is rife with perverse incentives for police and lacks safeguards for property owners.
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Civil asset forfeiture was created to disrupt organized crime, especially drug trafficking, but news investigations and reports by civil liberties groups have shown it is just as often used to target everyday citizens, many of whom have their cash, car, or even house seized without ever being charged with a crime.
The New Mexico legislature unanimously passed the bill in March, but it was unclear whether Martinez would sign it. She waited until the last possible hour to do so, signing it into law just before a noon deadline that would have pocket vetoed the bill.
"As an attorney and career prosecutor, I understand how important it is that we ensure safeguards are in place to protect our constitutional rights," Martinez said in a letter after signing the bill. "On balance, the changes made by this legislation improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners."
Under the new law signed by Martinez, New Mexico police will only be allowed to keep seized property if the owner is convicted of or pleads guilty to a crime. Also, the proceeds from asset forfeiture in the state will now be funneled into the state’s general fund, rather than into police budgets.
The passage of the new law was applauded by criminal justice and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that is currently suing the city of Philadelphia to shut down its asset forfeiture program.
"This is a good day for the Bill of Rights," said Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico ACLU, in a press release. "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 Coalition for Public Safety, a criminal justice reform coalition that includes groups from across the political spectrum, also endorsed Martinez’s decision.
"The Coalition commends Governor Martinez and the New Mexico Legislature on enacting legislation that will protect the property rights of innocent New Mexicans," Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, said in a press release. "When used responsibly, forfeiture can be an important tool for law enforcement to deter crime. House Bill 560 will help ensure it is used for those purposes—while balancing property rights and due process for innocent citizens. This bipartisan legislative effort will preserve and strengthen public safety and crime-fighting efforts in New Mexico, and hopefully represents the beginning of a movement that will spark other states across the country to do the same."
Many law enforcement groups in the state opposed the bill. The state Department of Public Safety warned that the lack of asset forfeiture funds would result in "less training, less resources, less equipment, and a reduction of criminal investigations."
Washington, D.C., passed similar reforms earlier this year, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced reforms to curb asset forfeiture at the federal level as well.
A bipartisan group of legislators have also introduced a bill in both chambers of Congress—The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act—that would strengthen protections for those whose property is seized.