Any revenue formally generated from the civil asset forfeiture program in Albuquerque, New Mexico is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled. U.S. District Judge James O. Browning ruled civil asset forfeiture violates residents’ rights to due process because it forces them to prove their innocence before they can reclaim their possessions, as Reason wrote.
Civil asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize any property that is suspected to be connected to a crime even if the owner of the property is not charged with a crime.
Judge Browning ruled the forfeiture system unconstitutionally financially incentivizes officials and said their judgment “will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain — the more revenues they raise, the more revenues they can spend.” He said this is largely because the city’s “forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years.”
Judge Browning made the ruling in response to a lawsuit filed in 2016 by Arlene Harjo, whose car the city of Albuquerque seized because her son drove it in a drunken state. Harjo is represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.
“It’s a scam and a rip-off,” Harjo said. “They’re taking property from people who just loan a vehicle to someone. It’s happened a lot. Everybody I’ve talked to has had it happen to them or somebody they know, and everybody just pays.”
Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, hailed Judge Browning’s ruling. He described it as a “total victory for fairness, due process and property owners everywhere.”
“The court ruled the government must prove that an owner did something wrong before it can take away their property. Beyond that, the judge ruled that law enforcement cannot benefit financially from revenue generated by a forfeiture program. Together, these rulings strike at the heart of the problem with civil forfeiture,” said Johnson.
An End to Civil Asset Forfeiture Programs?
Law enforcement officials argue the civil forfeiture program helps to curb drug trafficking and other organized crime. But civil libertarians say this is not exactly true since the program often targets everyday citizens who are forced to cough up money to reclaim their possessions.
Albuquerque city officials promised to release Harjo’s car if she would pay $4,000, but she declined. The city then released the car, possibly to neutralize her lawsuit, but without dismantling the asset forfeiture program. The case moved forward, and ultimately Judge Browning ruled in Harjo’s favor.
According to Reason, multiple lawsuits have targeted various city forfeiture asset programs, but federal courts have been reluctant to rule on the issue of profit incentives.
Thanks to Browning’s ruling, Johnson of the Institute for Justice said the Institute “will undoubtedly use this decision to attack civil forfeiture programs nationwide.”