Policing in America has come under intense scrutiny in recent years and, like many industries that suddenly have the spotlight shined on them, the scrutiny has exposed many police officers and agencies engaging in practices harmful to the communities they were tasked with protecting. One such issue that has come to light is the abuse and misuse of civil forfeiture laws. In late March 2015, New Mexico's government passed laws designed to eliminate the abuse associated with the statute. Here's what you need to know about this turn of events and how you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of unwarranted civil forfeiture.
Closing The Loophole
Civil forfeiture laws were designed to punish criminals by confiscating money and property associated with illegal activity. For instance, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency may take possession of a house out of which drugs were being sold. The law was primary designed to help in the fight against drug distribution, but has been applied to a wide variety of illegal and legal activities.
While the laws were intended to make it easier to dismantle criminal organizations, they have unfortunately been used to take money and property from people who did not commit crimes or who are only guilty of minor infractions like speeding. In fact, civil forfeiture laws in many states don't require a person to be found guilty of a crime, or to even go to court, before the police or district attorney's office can take their assets.
In an effort to stop the trend of policing for profit, the New Mexico government recently passed HB 560, a law that requires citizens to be found guilty of a crime before any of their assets can be confiscated. It also prevents law enforcement agencies in the state from keeping any of the assets collected by requiring property to be sold and all moneys to be sent to the state fund.
This last part of the law was designed to close a loophole that allowed law enforcement agencies to circumvent existing civil forfeiture laws by essentially laundering acquired assets through the Department of Justice's Equitable Sharing Program Asset Forfeiture Fund. Now, no law enforcement agency can participate in the program, taking away the incentive for officers and policing agencies to engage in abusive practices.
Protecting Yourself From Civil Forfeiture
A few other states have made similar moves to stem the abuse of local civil forfeiture laws. For example, the District of Columbia approved a measure in 2014 to prevent money from seized assets from being given to police departments. Instead, the money is sent to the general fund.
Unfortunately, unwarranted civil forfeiture continues to be a problem in many areas, particularly on the nation's highways. For example, a man lost $124,700 to Nebraska state troopers during a routine traffic stop. Despite there being no presence of drugs or evidence of drug trafficking, the court ruled in favor of the officers and allowed them to keep the money.
The first thing you can do to protect yourself is to avoid carrying around a lot of cash. In the age of debit and credit cards, there really is no reason to have thousands of dollars worth of bills on you. If you really need to move quite a bit of money from one location to another, use paper or plastic financial products that are easily concealed such as money orders or prepaid debit cards. You may even want to consider using a money wiring service to send the money and pick it up when you get to your destination.
Another thing you can do is refuse to allow officers to search your home or vehicle. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from illegal searches and seizures. Law enforcement does not have the right to search your property without your permission or without probable cause. Although the officer may put pressure on you to agree to a search of your property, you are well within your rights to decline.
Law enforcement agencies are required to return your property to you if you're not charged or convicted of a crime. However, this doesn't always happen. If you were the victim of an illegal asset seizure, click here for more information, and contact an attorney with experience in this area to help you get your money and property back as well as possibly collect additional money for damages caused by the illegal action.