New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill to abolish civil asset forfeiture Friday.
She signed just before the noon deadline that would have pocket vetoed the legislation.
“As an attorney and career prosecutor, I understand how important it is that we ensure safeguards are in place to protect our constitutional rights,” Martinez said in a letter announcing her decision. “On balance, the changes made by this legislation improve the transparency and accountability of the forfeiture process and provide further protections to innocent property owners.”
Civil asset forfeiture is a practice where police can seize your property and keep it even if they don’t convict or charge you with a crime. Then, you must go through the difficult, and often unsuccessful process to get your property–whether it’s a vehicle, cash or your home–back from the police.
The new law makes two important 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 department’s budget. The difference at least adds a layer of bureaucracy and oversight between police and the funds they seize.
“It’s great that she signed it, and it’s really going to be a good thing for New Mexico,” Hal Stratton, former attorney general for New Mexico who has vocally supported the bill, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It was quite a collaborative effort. The fact that she is willing to step up and sign it is really a good thing.”
New Mexico’s state legislature passed the bill March 21 just hours before the session closed. If the bill had been vetoed it would likely not gotten attention again for two years because of New Mexico’s short legislative sessions.
“We’re thrilled,” Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, which was co-founded by Stratton and has worked closely on the bill, told TheDCNF. “The right thing was done for all New Mexicans today.”
In the letter, Martinez addressed law enforcement’s fears that the loss of these funds would leave them less equipped to fight crime, particularly drug cartels.
“With the passage of this legislation, it is more critical than ever before that every county and municipality, as well as the state legislature, makes a stronger commitment to fully fund our law enforcement agencies so that they can continue undertaking complex investigations, protecting the public, and protecting themselves while doing so,” she said.
The effort drew support from groups on the right and left, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Those groups hope that this effort will start a domino effect in other states, which have been reluctant to make changes.
“This bipartisan legislative effort will preserve and strengthen public safety and crime-fighting efforts in New Mexico, and hopefully represents the beginning of a movement that will spark other states across the country to do the same,” Christine Leonard, executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, said in a statement.
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