By Paul J. Gessing | Watchdog Opinion
They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Of course, it’s even better to be lucky and good! That is exactly what happened in New Mexico during the 2015 legislative session with regard to reforming the process of civil asset forfeiture.
To recap, during the 2015 legislative session, New Mexico’s deeply-divided Legislature unanimously supported significant reforms to the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. That bill was signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor. The new law now represents the “gold standard” in terms of state efforts to rein in the much-abused process of civil asset forfeiture. It does so in the following ways:
So, what conditions made New Mexico, a state not typically known for policy innovation, the model for civil asset forfeiture reform?
In New Mexico, old economic-development habits are hard to break.
The pressure for a special legislative session to pass a capital-outlay bill exemplifies the political establishment’s inability to understand the policies that foster a dynamic and diversified economy. Republicans and Democrats, architects and artists, businesses and unions are complaining the 2015 regular session failed to appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars for what Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, called “critical community infrastructure.”
Construction/maintenance of roads, highways, libraries, airports, hospitals, museums and schools is reflexively viewed as an unalloyed good. But it’s important to remember that capital expenditures are funded not by a magical money tree, but income redistribution. Whether the infrastructure projects are paid for by the statewide property tax (general-obligation bonds), levies on natural resources (severance-tax bonds), the gas tax (transportation bonds), or general-fund revenue, there is no free lunch.
How did transparency and open government fare during New Mexico’s 2015 legislative session? Prior to the 2015 session, I urged legislators to consider a variety of reforms. Some of my ideas were discussed and acted upon while others were ignored completely. Change comes slowly in politics and that is doubly true in Santa Fe.
Prior to the session, I argued for a formal institutional process of recording and archiving committee hearings. Gov. Martinez’s office has handled this task with legislators taking varying degrees of umbrage at the Executive Branch’s seeming intrusion on Legislative priorities. Unfortunately, the very fact that the Governor’s office has handled this task became the latest excuse for some legislators to avoid taking it on themselves.
We hope that as Gov. Martinez moves into the latter part of her 2nd term in office (without guarantees that future governors will wish to record and archive committee hearings), that the Legislature will take action to formalize its recording and archiving procedures.
Once again, the National Education Association (NEA) has proven itself to be simply another left-wing special interest group that cares more about obtaining and spending taxpayer money than enacting policies that benefit New Mexico’s children. This is the clear message of the recent article by their president, Betty Patterson.
She spends her first few paragraphs decrying efforts to make New Mexico a “right to work” state. Interestingly, in New Mexico, teachers already have the option to join or pay dues to a union. In other words, teachers in New Mexico government schools currently live under a reasonable approximation of “right to work.” The NEA did actively fight “right to work” but that’s simply because the organization supports all manner of liberal causes regardless of their impact on students.
Recently, Gov. Martinez signed the nation's strongest protections for civil asset forfeiture. The Rio Grande Foundation, ACLU of New Mexico, and Drug Policy Alliance held a press conference on the issue. The full conference can be seen below:
KOB Channel 4 did a story here:
KOAT TV also covered the press conference although they focused heavily on the DUI provisions that have been enacted by some cities and which may or may not conflict with the new legislation.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Micah McCoy, (505) 266-5915 x1003 or mmccoy [at] aclu-nm [dot] org
Paul Gessing, (505) 264-6090, pgessing [at] riograndefoundation [dot] org
Emily Kaltenbach, (505) 920-5259 or ekaltenbach [at] drugpolicy [dot] org
SANTA FE, NM—Today, Governor Susana Martinez signed HB 560 into law, ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture in New Mexico. Civil asset forfeiture, also known as “policing for profit,” allows law enforcement officers to seize personal property without ever charging—much less convicting—a person with a crime. Property seized through this process often finds its way into the department’s own coffers. HB 560, introduced by NM Rep. Zachary Cook and passed unanimously in the legislature, replaces civil asset forfeiture with criminal forfeiture, which requires a conviction of a person as a prerequisite to losing property tied to a crime. The new law means that New Mexico now has the strongest protections against wrongful asset seizures in the country.
“This is a good day for the Bill of Rights,” said ACLU-NM Executive Director Peter Simonson. “For years police could seize people’s cash, cars, and houses without even accusing anyone of a crime. Today, we have ended this unfair practice in New Mexico and replaced it with a model that is just and constitutional.”
“With this law, New Mexico leads the nation in protecting the property rights of innocent Americans,” said Paul Gessing, President of the Rio Grande Foundation. “Convicted criminals will still see the fruits of their crime confiscated by the state, but innocent New Mexicans can now rest easy knowing that their property will never be seized by police without proper due process.”
“New Mexico has succeeded today in reigning in one of the worst excesses of the drug war,” said Emily Kaltenbach, State Director for Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office “Like other drug war programs, civil asset forfeiture is disproportionately used against poor people of color who cannot afford to hire lawyers to get their property back. This law is an important step towards repairing some of the damage the drug war has inflicted upon our society and system of justice.”
“New Mexico has shown that ending policing for profit is a true bipartisan issue with broad public support,” said Lee McGrath, Legislative Counsel for the Institute of Justice. “America is ready to end civil asset forfeiture, a practice which is not in line with our values or constitution. This law shows that we can be tough on crime without stripping property away from innocent Americans.”
Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced in both houses of Congress that would dramatically reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws. The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). In the House, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced an identical version of the FAIR Act.
On April 8, 2015, James Taylor of the Heartland Institute visited Albuquerque to discuss policies that are negatively impacting New Mexicans' access to affordable, reliable energy (especially electricity). You can watch his full presentation below and access his powerpoint slides here:
Observers knew in the wake of November’s elections that the 2015 legislative session would be unlike any they’d seen in their lifetimes. For the first time in 62 years, the House of Representatives would be under Republican control.
Despite this shift to the right, New Mexico’s Senate remained under control of Democrats. This is because the entire Senate is up every four years in presidential election years like 2016. The House on the other hand is up for election every two years.
These are not your run-of-the-mill Democrats. Their Majority Leader, Michael Sanchez, is both a trial lawyer and one of the most partisan legislators in the Senate. There are a handful of moderates sprinkled throughout the body, but they rarely vote as a cohesive group or provide a counter-weight to their powerful Leader.
Before the session, Sanchez professed a desire that the Senate and House be able to work together despite their political differences, saying the Legislature will not “end up like Washington, D.C.” This promise was transparently false as Sanchez immediately opposed adoption of one of Gov. Martinez’s top priorities, a “Right to Work” law and then falsely claimed that Martinez “cynically commissioned a study to ‘prove’ that ‘Right to Work’ creates jobs, economic growth, and more businesses locating in New Mexico, even if this were not true.”