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.