When Arlene Harjo’s car was seized by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2016, she wasn’t even driving it. But when her son was caught driving drunk, the car was determined to be “guilty” under the city’s civil forfeiture program.
However, that program began prior to a state law that, in seeking to reform civil forfeiture, abolished such practices. Now, two years later, a federal judge not only agreed that the takings were against that law but that they resulted in a violation of the Constitution as well.
Albuquerque seized Arlene Harjo’s car using civil asset forfeiture, even though New Mexico banned the practice. Harjo refused to roll over, and now the city’s civil forfeiture program is dead. https://t.co/6CXXhzAbfe
— reason (@reason) April 12, 2018
Harjo had already gotten her car back, but she was fighting for much more than that. She was fighting to stop the practice for good.
Civil asset forfeiture began in the 1980s as a new form of combat in the war on drugs. A person doesn’t need to be convicted of a crime — nor even charged with one — to be subject to the practice. Perverse incentives in place allowed the money reaped from the forfeitures to be funneled back into the departments that seized the assets — and often to the very people who seized them.
A New York Times exposé on the practice in 2014 outlined how abuses occur and what types of assets are targeted due to their value. And since there is no due process involved, a point that the judge adjudicating Harjo’s case stated clearly was unacceptable, the burden falls on the citizen to reclaim what was seized.
The practice is not unique to New Mexico. In the prior year, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the state of Utah seized $2.1 million. Over 40 percent of those cases haven’t resulted in a conviction, and 20 percent of the cases didn’t even result in a charge being filed.
That state is also fighting a battle over $500,000 that may have been illegally taken during a routine traffic stop in 2016.
— Ben Winslow (@BenWinslow) April 15, 2018
Abuses in other states abound, as Reason magazine reported. In Georgia, a county sheriff bought a $70,000 muscle car with the proceeds. Michigan residents wait over three years for a hearing to retrieve their seized property. And one New Hampshire man had to “give” the Department of Justice $39,000 of $46,000 that was seized from him just to get any of it back.
— Jason Sorens (@JasonSorens) August 4, 2018
Many cases similar to Harjo’s are taken up by advocacy groups like the Institute for Justice, which seek to limit civil forfeiture — if not abolish it altogether. Otherwise, many of those who have lost property in such circumstances might not pursue the matter due to the costs involved.
Harjo could have been happy to just get her car back; instead, the federal court ruling on her behalf is a significant step toward outlawing the practice for good.