Government Law

New Mexico law ends civil forfeiture, bolsters innocent owner defense in criminal cases

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New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has signed a bill ending civil forfeiture of assets valued at less than $50,000 in the state.

Martinez said (PDF) she endorsed provisions in the bill improving the forfeiture process, though she disagreed with those who termed the process “policing for profit,” the Albuquerque Journal reports. Critics saw a profit motive in the practice, which has put millions of dollars into the coffers of state and local law enforcement agencies in New Mexico.

The law still allows forfeiture after a criminal conviction, the New York Times reports.

According to the Cato at Liberty website, the bill bolsters the innocent owner defense by requiring proof the owner knew his or her property was being used illegally and requires forfeiture proceeds to be deposited into the state general fund rather than go to local agency that seizes the property.

Law enforcement agencies in the state can still participate in a federal forfeiture-sharing program when assets are valued at more than $50,000, the Times says. The law takes effect in July.

It’s unclear if the law affects Albuquerque’s seizure of vehicles driven by repeat drunken driving offenders because the program relies on a nuisance and abatement ordinance, managing assistant attorney Eric Locher told the Albuquerque Journal.

“We’re going to err on the side of caution and continue to enforce the [DWI seizure] program for public safety,” Locher said. “We anticipate there will be some litigation because there is some ambiguity in the law.”

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