In March, the New Mexico legislature voted for major reforms of its asset forfeiture laws. The state had come under fire for abuse of the program, including a 2010 case in which cops pulled a couple of travelers over for a minor traffic violation and seized $17,000 in cash they were intending to use for a trip and home renovations.
The legislation, House Bill 560, ended any possible "civil" component of asset forfeiture. Police in New Mexico would still be able to seize property, but they would have to prove a crime actually happened in order to justify the taking. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies in the state would no longer be able to keep the proceeds for themselves. Any property seized would be auctioned off and all returns would go to the state's general fund.
This shift has two important consequences. First, it reduces the incentives for law enforcement agencies to look for reasons to seize property. Second, it ends the state's participation in the Department of Justice's Equitable Sharing Program. Law enforcement agencies have been bypassing state restrictions on asset forfeiture by partnering with the feds on busts and then keeping a good chunk of the seized assets for themselves. The new rules would effectively prohibit that practice.
The legislation passed with absolutely no opposition in either house of the New Mexico legislature. Since Republicans run the state's House of Representatives and Democrats dominate the state's Senate, that makes it a bipartisan accomplishment. Waiting until the last possible day before a pocket veto would have gone into effect, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez signed the legislation into law, agreeing it would "provide further protections to innocent property owners."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Forfeiture Reform".