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New Mexico State Senators Attack Automoble Impounding
New Mexico lawmakers take aim at Albuquerque for ignoring law outlawing the civil forfeiture of automobiles.

Lisa Torraco and Daniel A. Ivey-Soto
A pair of New Mexico state lawmakers are taking action to block Albuquerque's civil forfeiture program. State Senators Lisa Torraco (R-Bernalillo) and Daniel A. Ivey-Soto (D-Bernalillo) last week teamed up with the Institute for Justice in a lawsuit meant to stop the city from grabbing cars for profit.

Since 2010, the Albuquerque has seized 8300 automobiles, generating $8.3 million in revenue. The city relies on the loose standards of civil forfeiture that allow police officers to show "probable cause" that a vehicle was somehow related to a crime in order to take the car. The burden of proof then shifts to the vehicle owner to prove his own innocence -- by the higher "preponderance of the evidence" standard. While they do so, towing and "storage fees" accumulate each day in a process that is often drawn out. The fees are imposed even if a vehicle owner is found to be wholly innocent.

"Ultimately, with the deck stacked so firmly against them, and the cost of fighting mounting by the day, the vast majority of people caught up in this system simply give up or agree to settlement terms dictated by the city," the Institute for Justice explained in its summary of the case. "And when Albuquerque takes property through civil forfeiture, the proceeds go to the very police and prosecutors who do the forfeiting."

The state legislature was so appalled by the program, called a "gold mine" by a local official, that it unanimously enacted a law in April requiring a criminal conviction before any forfeiture proceedings. The statute took effect July 1, but the lawsuit charges that the city is continuing its old practices. In fact, the city council approved spending $2.5 million to build a massive new impound lot.

Senators Torraco and Ivey-Soto want a Bernalillo County judge to compel the city to follow the law by ending the forfeiture program.

"The state legislature has a significant interest in obtaining a speedy resolution of this legal question," the senators -- both lawyers -- wrote in their complaint. "Municipalities across the state are violating the forfeiture reform law, and the state legislature has an interest in bringing that ongoing defiance to a close."

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