In 2015, New Mexico scrapped its civil asset forfeiture laws and replaced them with a criminal process requiring a conviction before forfeiture can commence. Law enforcement lobbyists warned that ending civil forfeiture would cause crime to skyrocket. So, what actually happened?

In a nutshell, nothing.

When the legislature was debating the 2015 reforms, law enforcement came out with dire warnings. The New Mexico Department of Public safety claimed that ending civil forfeiture would have “a negative impact on public safety” and could trigger a “reduction in criminal investigations.” In the bill analysis, the department testified, “This bill directly jeopardizes the most basic and fundamental key to successful narcotics investigations.”

The chair of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association simply asserted, “You’ll get less law enforcement,” without civil asset forfeiture.

It didn’t turn out that way.

The Institute for Justice compared crime rates in neighboring Texas and Colorado for its Policing for Profit report and determined that “New Mexico’s overall crime rate did not rise following the implementation of strong forfeiture reform in 2015, nor did arrest rates drop.”

In fact, the overall trend in New Mexico’s offense rate was “even flatter than those for the control states.”

In an interview on the Cato Daily Podcast, Jennifer McDonald of the Institute for Justice said she hoped other states would follow new Mexico’s lead.

We really want to see states follow in New Mexico’s footsteps to get rid of civil forfeiture and also direct forfeiture proceeds away from law enforcement. So, even those that come from criminal forfeiture because government agents respond to incentives, and when there is a financial incentive in play, they’re going to pursue more forfeiture.”

The New Mexico law also opted the state out of a federal program. “Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state civil asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. Under the New Mexico law, state and local police can’t pass cases off to the federal government unless the amount of the forfeiture is greater than $50,000. The vast majority of cases fall below that threshold. McDonald said this effectively ended equitable sharing in New Mexico.

“What we’ve seen since 2015 is equitable sharing just doesn’t happen in New Mexico with the exception of a few tribal agencies.”

The numbers bear this out. In fiscal 2015, New Mexico law enforcement agencies collected $2.2 million in equitable sharing proceeds. In 2016, the total plummeted to just over $202,000, all collected by the Laguna Police Department, a Native American agency.

Cops base their opposition to forfeiture reform on the notion that “we won’t be able to do our jobs,” and “criminals will run amuck.” But the realities on the ground in New Mexico prove this to be either a gross exaggeration or an outright lie.

Mike Maharrey

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