Criminal Justice

New Mexico Passes Legislation Balancing Property Rights and Public Safety

Every year, law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars simply by suspecting the property is connected to criminal activity. Friday, April 10, after being unanimously passed through the legislature, HB 560 was signed into law by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. Read her Executive Message here. Among other improvements, HB 560 reforms the current law on forfeiture procedures by requiring a criminal conviction for seizure and proper reporting.

Civil asset forfeiture is a practice in which assets suspected of being associated with crime may be seized and subsequently forfeited, often without the owner being charged with a crime. Law enforcement agencies are then entitled to keep most of the assets seized. These counterproductive incentives in the laws distort public safety priorities and infringe upon individual liberty and property rights.

For example, in 2009 Shukree Simmons had recently sold his Chevy Silverado for $3,700 and was pulled over by patrol officers, asked numerous questions, and despite no evidence of criminal activity, had the cash seized by officers based on their suspicion of its involvement in illegal activity.

In most states, asset forfeiture accounts for a large percentage of police department revenue, often providing for the payment of salaries and purchase of new equipment. When asset forfeiture procedures do not require a criminal charge or conviction, the potential revenue incentivizes law enforcement to increase forfeiture practices and distracts from effective crime prevention.

With the most recent reform effort, New Mexico now requires annual reports by law enforcement agencies on forfeiture, a criminal conviction for forfeiture proceedings and directs the revenue of forfeiture practices to the state general fund instead of to the department itself. Each of these provisions removes perverse incentives and help to assert the asset forfeiture practice as one conducted to prevent crime, not create revenue.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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