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New Mexico Gov Has One More Day To Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has until noon Friday to sign a bill to abolish civil asset forfeiture, or the bill will be pocket vetoed and die after unanimous, bipartisan support in the state’s legislature.

Civil asset forfeiture is the process by which police can take and keep someone’s personal property if they suspect it is connected to criminal activity, all without convicting or even charging that person of a crime. That money then goes to pad police budgets, something law enforcement calls necessary and critics call a perverse incentive structure.

The bill before the governor makes two big changes:

1. Currently, when police seize property they can keep it even if you are innocent. Under the new law, police can still take property from you for a short period, but would need a conviction or a guilty plea in order to keep it.

2. The law changes the incentive structure for police. Under the new law, if police do get a guilty verdict and your property is forfeited, it goes to the state’s general fund rather than the police budget. The difference at least adds a layer of bureaucracy and oversight between police and seized funds.

Criticism of the civil asset forfeiture has been growing after multiple reports of law enforcement abusing it to take property from innocent Americans.

In New Mexico, civil asset forfeiture came under fire in 2010 after law enforcement took $17,000 from Stephen Skinner and his son during a routine traffic stop on their way to vacation in Las Vegas. The two men — who were charged with no crime and left stranded far from home — finally got their money back two years later but only after the ACLU took up their cause.

A district judge in Albuquerque forced Bernalillo County and former Sheriff Darren White to pay $3 million in damages in 2011 to multiple people who had their assets seized, further marring the practice’s reputation in the state.

Hal Stratton, New Mexico’s former attorney general, has been vocally supportive of the bill.

“[Law enforcement’s] hang up is the money and they really don’t like the part where it goes into the state treasury instead of them and that is the problem,” Stratton told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The money is a key issue in the debate. The fiscal impact report for the bill said it would have an “indeterminate but substantial” effect. Ken Christesen, president of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association, told TheDCNF that the money obtained through asset forfeiture is crucial for law enforcement, and that if it is rerouted to the state’s budget that police won’t get it back.

Stratton debated two New Mexico sheriffs on a local NPR affiliate radio station Tuesday morning including Christesen. Christesen’s group sent a letter to the governor opposing the bill.

Christesen told TheDCNF that there are problems with asset forfeiture and that he was willing to sit down and work on the bill, but that completely removing law enforcement’s power would aid drug cartels in the state.

“This bill hampers law enforcement more than it helps,” Christesen told TheDCNF.

But the time for sitting down and talking has passed. New Mexico’s state legislature passed the bill March 21 just hours before the session closed. If the bill is vetoed it will likely not get attention again for two years because of New Mexico’s short legislative sessions.

Christesen alleged that the bill’s proponents snuck it through the legislature at the end.

“I don’t think that everybody read the bill,” he told TheDCNF.

Stratton said he was heavily involved in passing original legislation in the 1980’s to establish asset forfeiture, but he has since realized the practice’s flaws. He co-founded the Rio Grande Foundation, a group that worked to pass the reform bill.

“So for me this is kind of redemption,” Stratton told TheDCNF. (RELATED: The 7 Most Egregious Examples Of Civil Asset Forfeiture)

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