Federal Judge Calls City's Asset Forfeiture Program Unconstitutional
from the which-pretty-much-means-all-civil-asset-forfeiture-programs-are-unconstitutional dept
In 2015, the state of New Mexico overhauled its asset forfeiture program. The reform bill all but eliminated civil asset forfeiture by creating a conviction requirement. This eliminated roadside shopping trips by New Mexico law enforcement in which “perps” were free to go, so long as they left everything else (cash, vehicles) behind.
Despite the passage of this law, the Albuquerque PD continued to engage in asset forfeiture on pre-reform terms. The especially aggressive program saw citizens losing their vehicles to law enforcement because of acts committed by other drivers and the PD seized cars by the dozens during DWI arrests. The PD was sued by state legislators for its continued violations of the new law while the law enforcement agency repeatedly claimed the legislation just didn’t apply to it.
The plaintiff in this case — who has just received a ruling that may cause serious problems for asset forfeiture programs elsewhere in the nation — had her vehicle forfeited by the Albuquerque PD after her son drove it drunk. A ruling in this case allowed Arlene Harjo’s lawsuit against the city to proceed, and also resulted in the PD dropping its unlawful — if not unconstitutional — program.
Albuquerque announced this week that it will end the program following a federal judge’s recent decision to allow Harjo’s lawsuit against the city to proceed. “Given changes in state law and recent court rulings, it’s time to update the city’s policy on vehicle seizures,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement to the Albuquerque Journal. “As part of constitutional policing, [the Albuquereque Police Department] can continue to seize assets in cases where there has been a conviction. I directed APD to implement this change and have requested City Council to update the ordinance.”
The city tried to end Harjo’s lawsuit by returning her car to her in 2016. Fortunately, Harjo had the help of the Institute for Justice, which wasn’t amused by this attempt to circumvent litigation targeting the whole of PD’s asset forfeiture programs.
The lawsuit questioned the constitutionality of the incentives created by the program used by the PD. The PD directly profits from these seizures, so the question is whether the incentive is perverse enough to invite abuse of civil liberties. The court says, “Yes. Yes it is.”
The Court concludes that the City of Albuquerque has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years. Thus, there is a “realistic possibility” that forfeiture officials’ judgment “will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain” — the more revenues they raise, the more revenues they can spend.
This would be the case in most asset forfeiture programs. Few are subject to independent oversight and almost all of them allow for discretionary spending. The distorting effects of these programs can be seen… well, pretty much everywhere.
The court goes on to note that it’s unlikely those overseeing forfeiture proceedings (mainly city attorneys and forfeiture administrators) are likely not as affected by this distortion since their salaries aren’t tied to successful conversions. But it goes on to note the program itself, irrespective of questionable financial interests, is unconstitutional because it incorrectly shifts the burden of proof to the person whose property has been seized.
The City of Albuquerque has determined that innocent owners — owners who could not have reasonably foreseen that their vehicle would be used in a way that would subject the vehicle to forfeiture — have a right to keep their vehicles. Thus, the City of Albuquerque has a constitutional obligation, under Mathews v. Eldridge, to implement accurate procedures for determining an owner’s innocence. The City of Albuquerque’s hearing procedures do not discharge that obligation, because proving that the City of Albuquerque has probable cause to seize a vehicle does not reveal anything about what the vehicle’s owner could or could not have reasonably foreseen. Thus, the City of Albuquerque’s hearing procedures are constitutionally inadequate…
As things stood before the city dropped the program, all the city had to prove was the operator of the vehicle committed a crime (usually DWI, but also driving with suspended/revoked licenses). It left the burden of proving the owner’s innocence (not the actual driver) to the owner, which is the wrong way to handle things in terms of due process.
This is the way all civil asset forfeiture hearings are handled. The government has to only offer suspicions. It’s up to victims to come up with all the proof of innocence or the property’s legal provenance. These two declarations by a federal court strike at the heart of civil asset forfeiture everywhere. What’s unconstitutional here is unconstitutional elsewhere. If any appeals are involved (and Harjo continues to prevail), the influence of this opinion will spread to the entire district. So, it’s potentially a huge ruling, even if it’s current impact is limited to Albuquerque’s (now abandoned) forfeiture program.
As a bonus, here’s some “fun” facts about the PD’s forfeiture program (all taken from the ruling, with additional commentary in brackets):
“The City’s Chief Hearing Officer has stated that ‘about half of the vehicles that APD seizes are not owned by the offender that we confiscate it from’”; rather, “‘it’s the mothers, the fathers, the wives, the girlfriends, the brothers, [and] the uncles’” who own the vehicles…
No one from the City of Albuquerque Police Department contacts the owner to “conduct an interview prior to proceeding with the forfeiture” and no one from that department “investigates to determine whether the owner might have a valid innocent owner defense.”
Should the owner prevail in state court, the state court can still “impose storage fees as a condition of the vehicle’s release.”
“One of the most significant expenses paid out of program revenues is employee compensation.” During fiscal years 2009 to 2016, “the City used $3.7 million in program revenues to pay employee compensation,” which amounts to twenty-seven percent “of all expenses paid with program revenues.” Every fiscal year, “the City makes a lump-sum transfer” out of the forfeiture program’s account to pay the entire “salaries and benefits of employees associated with the program.” [This seems to be at odds with the finding that the program does not distort incentives for city forfeiture employees.]
“As a practical matter, the program’s spending is limited by its revenue, not by the City Council.” If the forfeiture program has more funds “available than [the] City Council has appropriated, it can spend even more and [the] City Council will pass a clean up bill retroactively authorizing the spending.”
“Annual performance evaluations for employees in the DWI Seizure Unit — which serve to assess individual job performance — list as an ‘Output Measure’ to ‘increase the amount of revenue generated from Seized vehicles.’”
“The head of the DWI Seizure Unit agreed that these Output Measures serve as a ‘measure of the unit’s success or failure at meeting its objectives.’”
In recent years,” the forfeiture program’s revenues have “declined, as fewer people are being caught driving under the influence.” “The City ascribes this decline to a variety of factors, including the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft that make it easier to drink outside the home without driving.”
Revenue decline in recent years “has adversely affected morale in the DWI Seizure Unit.” [loooooooool]