The Judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional, and even suggested that it served very little purpose.
Civil asset forfeiture has been a hot topic for discussion in the United States for months now, with many legal and political minds suggesting that it’s time the practice be done away with. However, all the talking heads in the world haven’t made much of a difference in its use.
Thankfully, for the people of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the program that was used to seize cars from those who were arrested on suspicion of their second (or subsequent) offense for driving under the influence was just ruled unconstitutional. A judge, in a 105-page ruling, undid a program that certainly did not seem fair, blasting the ‘vehicle seizure’ program, the way that it used ‘seized funds’ to pay for employee’s salaries and declared it unconstitutional. Which, according to the Fifth Amendment, many would agree that it was.
However, the ramifications could be huge, because many cities around the country use the very same practice to fund various law enforcement projects.
For years, Albuquerque allowed the Albuquerque Police Department to seize vehicles from anyone arrested on their second or subsequent DUI offense, or on charges related to driving on a revoked or suspended license.
In an interesting twist, however, the vehicles were seized whether the driver was the owner of the automobile or not.
U.S. District Judge James Browning’s decision, however, found a number of problems with the city’s policy, which had a tendency of forcing owners to prove that they were innocent if their cars were seized with someone else behind the wheel.
Judge Browning also said that it was improper that the city utilized the money the program collected to pay the salaries of the people who worked in the program.
In his ruling, Browning wrote that the city’s forfeiture program violated procedural due process, due to its requirement that owners had to prove that “their cars are not” subject to civil forfeiture under the auspices of the program.
According to Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute of Justice who worked on the case, the city will likely have to change its ordinance in order to comply with the ruling handed down by the U.S. District Court judge.
Johnson pointed out that if the city continued to operate the program as they do now, it would be taken as a sleight by the court.
In the past, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s administration had promised that there would be changes, to give vehicles owners greater protections when their vehicles were seized and they weren’t driving them in violation of the law.
However, no such changes were made to the law.
Alicia Manzano, who works as a spokesperson for the Mayor’s office, said that the ruling confirms the office’s ‘concerns’ with the past approach and the way that it might be infringing upon the rights of citizens in the city.
Manzano also said that, at the direction of the mayor, the city’s legal team was working to update the program, and to limit it to cases where there had been a conviction in accordance with state law.
As the ordinance stands, owners who were not driving their vehicles were faced with fines, fees, and even administrative hearings to get their automobiles back.
In many cases, the city would agree to release the vehicle back to its legal and registered owner four thousands of dollars and a ‘boot agreement,’ which, in this context, means that the legal owner of the car had to agree to allow the city to ‘boot’ the car, making it incapable of driving, for a certain amount of time.
However, for Arlene Harjo, a woman living in the city who lent her Nissan Versa to her son, that wasn’t good enough.
Her son had taken the Versa to Clovis without permission, where he was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.
The city was more than happy to return Harjo’s vehicle, if she would pay them $4,000 dollars and would agree to allow the city to boot the vehicle for 18 months.
Instead, she fought the city, and she won.
Part of the reason that the judge found the program unconstitutional was the fact that it required vehicle owners to prove that they were innocent after the cars were taken away.
As Browning wrote, however, the city’s interest in maintaining custody of the vehicle was greatly diminished after the initial seizure.
When the car is initially seized, the city is stopping someone from being on the road while they’re intoxicated or otherwise unable to drive. Those people are a danger to society, and to anyone on the motorways near them.
However, after that initial seizure, according to Browning, that car is no more dangerous in the rightful owner’s hands than it would be in the hands of any other driver on the road.
Robert Johnson said that the ruling could have an impact on similar statutes and laws around the country.
A New Mexican attorney named Brad Cates said that Albuquerque needed to provide innocent and legal vehicle owners with a better way to get their vehicles back.
He also said that the proceeds from the program of seizing vehicles needed to go to the city’s general fund, not directly back into paying salaries for program employees.
It’s good to see that one person made such a difference in the city of Albuquerque, simply by filing a lawsuit. If only more jurisdictions would abandon such terrible practices as civil asset forfeiture, United States citizens could recover a very important protection.