Taking the Path Forward: Civil Asset Forfeiture in New Mexico

Earlier this year, New Mexico enacted a bill largely abolishing the practice of civil asset forfeiture, requiring that a person be convicted of a criminal offense before having his or her property seized. The reform may come as a surprise, given the state’s record: Since 2008, New Mexico law enforcement agencies have spent $24.5 million in seized funds. Enacted in spite of serious opposition from federal, state, and local levels of law enforcement, the bill signals serious changes for the state’s criminal justice system. This was the backdrop for a recent discussion with a panel of experts, hosted by the Charles Koch Institute and the Rio Grande Foundation, focusing on the next steps for criminal justice in the Land of Enchantment.

The evening featured remarks from two members of the New Mexico House of Representatives—Republican Conrad James and Democrat Antonio Maestas—who both lauded their state’s recent reform while still acknowledging that other states should re-evaluate the practice of civil asset forfeiture.

Vikrant P. Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute and one of the evening’s panelists, outlined the significance of civil asset forfeiture and why the practice deserves to be scrutinized by those seeking justice reform: “The reason the civil asset forfeiture question is so important is that it really goes to the eroding trust that many of us are starting to have for our law enforcement institutions.” Reddy argued such a lack of trust has large implications for citizens, adding, “This has to concern us, because when people lose trust in police officers, when they lose trust in prosecutors, it’s public safety that actually suffers.”

For Steven Robert Allen, public policy director for the ACLU in New Mexico, the human side of civil asset forfeiture was most upsetting, especially when he spoke of a recent case. “Two gentlemen were not accused of a crime,” Allen explained. “They were not convicted of a crime. It was an atrocious violation of their due-process rights and property rights.” Allen later added: “You know something’s a good idea if everyone except law enforcement agencies that are profiting from these programs believes this is a good idea.”

Yet those agencies provide a powerful disincentive to challenge civil asset forfeiture, argued Diego Esquibel, attorney at The Barnett Law Firm. “It’s very intimidating. Not every lawyer is going to be forthright. They’re not going to tell you that you have the ability to go to a hearing and get [your property] back.”

As the former director of the U.S. Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program, Brad Cates had close involvement with the development of civil asset forfeiture, but he lamented how perverted the practice had become in present-day. He detailed the experience of one individual to highlight the contrast between forfeiture then and now: “[He] was on a train to Los Angeles that stopped in Albuquerque. The drug dogs? There were no drug dogs. The warrants? There were no warrants. The dope? There was no dope. … It just turns the whole criminal justice system upside down.”

Reddy ended the evening on a positive note, adding that despite past issues with civil asset forfeiture, “New Mexico is a national leader on this. … The people of New Mexico, the people in this room—they can take a lot of pride in that.”

The Charles Koch Institute is committed to leading a national conversation on criminal justice reform and identifying the best ideas and opportunities for moving forward. November 4-6, the Institute is hosting Advancing Justice, a summit designed to bring together experts from across the nation to address current barriers to and find potential solutions for reform. Additionally, the Charles Koch Foundation invites proposals for research regarding criminal justice and policing reform.

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