More National Attention for New Mexico Police

November 10th, 2014 · 5 Comments · regulation, role of government

By Denise Tessier

(November 10, 2014) In newsroom vernacular, the New York Times “scooped” papers in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces with its report on overzealous police departments and civil forfeiture laws, which ran in the Times Sunday (Nov. 9).

It would be hoped that the local papers do some follow-up on this one, because the story mentions those three New Mexico cities, merits greater attention and bears repeating.

The story, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets To Seize,” included segments of videos from police department seminars (one of which was held in Santa Fe), where officers were actually being advised to target big ticket items like luxury cars and to forget about jewelry and computers when seizing assets related to drug crimes, DWI or prostitution (the latter of which was possible courtesy of the Albuquerque City Council).

Star witness for the Times’ indictment of police coveting cars was Harry S. Connelly, Las Cruces city attorney, who is shown in a video (embedded in the Times’ story) relating how his city’s police department was disappointed it couldn’t nail a guy, despite their best efforts to pin something on him in order to get his “exotic” Mercedes. From the video footage of Connelly:

A 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.”

The Times’ news story noted that since the expansion of the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, civil forfeiture has become a law enforcement staple to the point that it helps finance police work, with some department personnel personally using assets like cars that have not been sold at auction.

What is new in the story is that police and prosecutors like Connelly are sharing tips on how to best score these high-dollar assets via continuing education seminars – like the one held in Santa Fe – some of which were videotaped. The Times says it became aware of the seminars through the Institute for Justice, which came to the Times saying they reveal “how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety.” According to the Times:

In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets.

The Times continues:

It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

New Mexico is mentioned in three contexts. Santa Fe was host city for one of the seminars, a video from which the Times reporters viewed. In a segment from that seminar, an officer is shown mimicking the Spanish accent of a parent whose car has been taken because of a son’s alleged crime. That seminar also produced the damning advice offered by the city attorney in Las Cruces, which has had a vehicle forfeiture ordinance since 1978. And then Albuquerque gets this mention:

. . .Albuquerque, which has long seized the cars of suspected drunken drivers, began taking them from men suspected of trying to pick up prostitutes, landing seven cars during a one-night sting.

The Times story continues:

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights.

In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets.

The seminars, some of which were captured on video, raise a curtain on how law enforcement officials view the practice.

A review of New Mexico stories online shows that law enforcement usually has touted vehicle seizures to the public as a DWI deterrent and as a way to keep drunken drivers from continuing to drive drunk. The videos from the seminars raise a curtain to show there’s another side: the family members who have had nothing to do with the alleged crime but suffered a loss of assets nonetheless, and the police departments’ almost predatory attitude when it comes to targeting certain members of the community with the ultimate goal being seizure of the asset.

The curtain has been raised by The New York Times. New Mexico media should raise it even further. These videos raise questions not only about how much departments rely on these seizures, but whether they’re on the rise in the face of diminishing budgets. Last month, the Washington Post reported that asset seizures are fueling spending on the part of police departments nationwide. That story mentioned New Mexico as well, saying the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Department used $4,700 of its proceeds for a banquet.

The backdrop to all this is, of course, a constitutional amendment against “unreasonable search and seizure,” which city and county governments have chosen to ignore in passing civil forfeiture laws.

The Albuquerque Journal, to its credit, showed some understanding of this when a year ago it urged the mayor to veto the “johns” forfeiture bill passed by the City Council, pointing out that the ordinance allowed forfeiture even without a conviction for the alleged crime. That editorial noted that:

. . .law enforcement in New Mexico has a history of playing loose and fast with other people’s property and cash – and not wanting to make amends when facts turn out different from allegations.

District Judge Clay Campbell later ruled the ordinance violated due process.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • F. Chris Garcia

    On a minor scale, when I was arrested for some false allegations, APD confiscated (among other of our possessions) $120 in cash. Of course when the case was thrown out of court, that money was never returned. ( How many donuts can that buy)?

  • Mary

    The Santa Fe Police Department “Seized” my friends truck! They are claiming it is “evidence. The truck was taken to a commercial Lot, then no one knows, then it ended up in the evidence lot! No one at he Police Department could locate it for 5 days! Officer Flores of the Santa Fe PD , tried to put in the DWI lot. We could not locate the truck for 5 days! I asked SFPD I we should report it stolen? My friend was finally allowed to remove his tools! His Keys and Passport are missing! All of this because of a Overzealous cop, and a Squatter on my property who made false allegations! The Officer even wrote the wrong DOB on my friends arrest report! The Squatter has made numerous false allegations about me and bullied me by cop. Because I was in the Process of evicting her she lied to the cops! The Other Police that had been to the Property numerous times dealing with her false allegations knew she disturbed! She has a long History of this, but one officer decided to take the allegations seriously, especially because my friend had a nice truck!

  • debbie (@dswenert2003)

    As a native New Mexican and the victim of unlawful arrest and seizure of my personal items I can attest to the fact that county and city managers including attorneys and law enforcement are corrupt beyond belief. Two years ago November 15, 2012 I entered Torrance County NM (Moriarty) simply to eat at Arby’s and visit a home where I had donated food, shelter and cash to a family that (As most in this county do) chained a tiny terrier mix out in the frigid winter weather simply because the puppy chewed on their furniture.
    Sheriff Heath White Torrance County NM fabricated charges, literally had no lapel camera footage, prints, witnesses or photos of broken windows and/or doors yet he arrested me, handcuffed me and drove me to Estancia NM prison where I was processed and helf for three hours in a freezing cold filthy, blood stained cell.
    I was put on house arrest by the corrupt judge Steve Jones who has since retired (wonder why?) After six months of house arrest and refusing all plea deals the prosecutor Ray Sharbutt dropped the case against me.
    Prosecutors can be fired for pursuing a case knowing it is based on false charges. To date all those involved walk free no charges filed even by my own attorney who stated, “I like the prosecutor … he seems like a shoot from the hip kind of guys” Yes indeed. To serve and protect. The real criminals are law enforcement, attorney’s, judges, news media and anyone involved who is willing to dance with the devil.
    Debbie Swenerton, Tijeras NM

  • Maria Bautista

    So true, in Santa Fe, NM where auto forfeiture is on the books, citizens with nice cars or luxury cars are harassed by police. One city Councilor in Santa Fe, Ron Trujillo said at a Council meeting, so it was recorded.” I CAN HARDLY WAIT TILL WE GET A HUMMER”.

    Assuming that everyone who has a “luxury” car most be doing something illegal. Is that infringing on a civil right, or a premeditated action? Wouldn’t it be better to arrest the DWI offender, taking the car does stop them from driving? Where is the focus?

  • Debbie Swenerton

    Two years later and not one thing has changed. Sheriff Heath White was reelected! How the hell did that happen? Proof that corruption runs deep or the citizens of Torrance County NM have been intimidated by law inforcement (right) That county truly operates as cowboys in the wild wild west except Heath White isn’t John Wayne.

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