Law enforcement officials in New Mexico are concerned that departments will no longer be able to afford to support the drug war now that the state has officially outlawed the asset forfeiture program—a revelation that has drug reform advocates asking, what’s the problem?
Beginning this month, police agencies across the state can no longer seize a citizen’s property based on suspicion of a drug-related crime. The recent signing of House Bill 560 by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez abolished the capacity for law enforcement to go scavenging for profitable items like houses and automobiles without first obtaining a conviction.
According to a recent article from the Farmington Daily Times, this new law of the land has police departments nervous about dwindling budgets and the inability to earn the required cash to keep their narcotics divisions from sinking like a stone.
Now, rather than profit from innocent citizens, police agencies across New Mexico must see drug-related cases all the way through to a guilty verdict before they are given permission to auction seized property—a process that was previously allowed to take place without any evidence of a crime. Because of this adjustment to the law, which obligates police to store seized items until the gavel comes down, some police agencies have said that they will no longer make property seizures a priority, which has caused them to take less of an interest in combating the War on Drugs.
“We’re going to try not to seize,” Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said, adding that he is upset over the fact that no police agency was asked about what the demise of the seizure program would do to them financially.
Sergeant Kyle Dowdy, who oversees the Region II Narcotics Task Force, claims the new law has put his division in a compromising position; one that will push them out of the business of making easy money on petty drug offenders. He said that the civil asset forfeiture program funded 25 percent of his operational budget—an estimated $100,000 per year, which was used to purchase surveillance equipment, as well as to train officers to properly shakedown and take down the criminal enterprises feeding from the belly of the black market dope trade.
While the law enforcement community would like the general population to believe that the loss of the civil asset forfeiture program will lead to an uprising in drug-related crime, the reality is these departments have been using the program to primarily bully those caught in violation of minor drug offenses, such a possession of marijuana.
A recent analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union discovered that 88 percent of all marijuana-related offenses were for small time possession. However, considering the underhanded nature of the civil asset forfeiture law, these types of minor offenses have the potential to lead to the seizure of automobiles and other valuable items that local police can then turn around and auction for profit. Ultimately, the banning of this program removes law enforcement’s incentive to enthusiastically pursue drug offenders.
Earlier this year, federal lawmakers introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, which would bring an end to the ability for law enforcement across the nation to profit from seized property without a conviction. Some have expressed concerns that this stipulation will contribute to more dastardly actions on the part of law enforcement in order to ensure a conviction, while most believe it will simply diminish the quantity of overall drug related arrests.