Civil Asset Forfeiture

Albuquerque Admits to One Car-Stealing Mistake, In Failed Attempt to Avoid Judgment on Their Overall Property-Stealing Policies


Some good news for Arlene Harjo out of New Mexico today: she'll be getting back the car the city of Albuquerque stole from her.

Institute for Justice

As C.J. Ciaramella reported here in August, the Institute for Justice is helping Harjo sue the city of Albuquerque, which has been systematically ignoring state law that should prevent them from straight-up stealing citizen property without convicting the owner of any crime. (There are simultaneous cases arguing roughly the same issues in both state and federal court.)

As Ciaramella wrote then:

Republican New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez signed a bill into law last year essentially ending civil asset forfeiture in the state, based largely on critical stories about programs like Albuquerque's…New Mexico's reforms require a criminal conviction to seize property.

Despite the reforms, Albuquerque has continued to seize cars like Harjo's, arguing the law does not apply to it. Two state lawmakers sued the city last year for its refusal to comply with the new law, but their case was dismissed due to lack of standing.

Harjo's son had been driving her car, a 2014 Nissan Versa, in April when he was arrested for drunk driving. She was still paying off the car loan, but the city took it.

The city offered Harjo her car back if she paid them $4,000. She fought this at an administrative hearing, where the hearing officer was the very man who created the city's asset-theft program. (She lost at that hearing.)

Today the Institute for Justice reports that Harjo is getting her car back, which is great for her.

But Albuquerque isn't admitting its entire practice is against state law. It's just saying that in the specific case of Harjo's car, they made a mistake, taking a car that was not actually in their city limits at the time, though the police involved previously insisted it was.

The city wanted Harjo's legal challenges to be rendered moot and ended because of this admission. The problem with that as a solution to the larger issues raised by her suit was hinted at in an Institute for Justice press release emailed today:

the city's confession avoids the key issue in Arlene's lawsuit, which is whether the city's forfeiture program violates a 2015 state law abolishing civil forfeiture. Instead, the city now says that it reviewed the videotape of the seizure and determined that Arlene's car was outside city limits when it was seized, meaning the city did not have jurisdiction over the seizure….

"We're thrilled that Arlene is getting her car back," said IJ attorney Robert Everett Johnson, who represents Arlene. "But this lawsuit has always been about more than a single car. Albuquerque's illegal program takes thousands of cars every year. The city cannot make this case go away just by copping to the lesser charge of taking property outside its jurisdiction."

IJ lawyer Robert Everett Johnson, who is handling the case, says this morning that despite the fact that Harjo will be getting her car back, and despite what seems to this reader at least the city trying to use that as an excuse to quash the federal suit, the suit against the city for the damage they already caused her and the possible illegality of the policy in general will indeed be continuing through the courts after a hearing this morning. Johnson says the judge more or less ignored the city's desire to make it go away and scheduled future deadlines for discovery requests and filing of briefs.

Harjo will get her car back, and still get her day in court.

IJ's web page with details on the case and its background.