Great news from the Land of Enchantment! In July, IJ successfully persuaded a federal judge in New Mexico to rule that a forfeiture program run by that state’s largest city, Albuquerque, violates the U.S. Constitution. This groundbreaking ruling will have seismic effects not just in New Mexico but across the entire nation.
For years, New Mexico has been a forfeiture trailblazer. As readers of Liberty & Law may recall, the New Mexico Legislature eliminated civil forfeiture in 2015 after officials made comments that showed the seedy underbelly of policing for profit. IJ was instrumental in that legislative victory, which made New Mexico the first state in the nation to abolish civil forfeiture.
Some cities, though, thumbed their noses at the reforms. Addicted to forfeiture dollars, they claimed they could ignore the Legislature and keep on seizing and forfeiting as they always had.
One of those cities was Albuquerque, whose program took in more than a million dollars a year, often at the expense of innocent owners like Arlene Harjo. Arlene found herself trapped in Albuquerque’s unlawful forfeiture system after her son took her car under false pretenses and was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Although Arlene had done nothing wrong, the city tried to permanently take her 2014 Nissan Versa. Arlene’s only other option, according to Albuquerque, was to pay $4,000 and immobilize her car for 18 months.
But Arlene chose a third way. She joined forces with IJ to sue Albuquerque. We argued that the city’s forfeiture program violated not only state law but also the U.S. Constitution, and we sought to bring Albuquerque to justice.
And that’s exactly what we’ve done. In a resounding and pathbreaking 105-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge James O. Browning affirmed IJ’s argument on virtually every count: Judge Browning held that Albuquerque’s forfeiture program violated state law. He held that it violated due process by requiring property owners to prove their innocence. And he held that, in giving officials carte blanche to use forfeiture proceeds any way they saw fit, Albuquerque’s program created an unconstitutional financial incentive to police and prosecute for profit rather than for public safety.
This ruling strikes at the heart of what drives forfeiture abuse—the ability of law enforcement agencies to financially benefit at the expense of individuals and to impose unjust and unconstitutional burdens on property owners in forfeiture proceedings. The first ruling of its kind from a federal court, Judge Browning’s decision will have ripple effects throughout all of IJ’s work in defense of property rights and the right to due process of law. And it demonstrates that IJ’s long-running, well-orchestrated campaign to end civil forfeiture continues to make history.