If you think police brutality and unnecessary use of force are the worst problems we have when it comes to law enforcement, think again. There’s a thing known as “civil asset forfeiture,” and it allows law enforcement to seize your property even if you’re never arrested or convicted of the crime for which your property was seized. New Mexico, however, has just taken a major step in eliminating widespread abuse of these policies.
Civil asset forfeiture was originally intended to allow law enforcement to disrupt the resources of drug rings and other large-scale criminal enterprises, according to the ACLU. These days, it’s often used to pad a police department’s bottom line. They make seizures more for profit reasons than for law enforcement reasons. What’s worse, though, is that the Supreme Court has upheld this nonsense more than once.
New Mexico is one of this country’s worst offenders when it comes to abusing civil asset forfeiture policies. According to Think Progress, the new law specifically states that law enforcement can only seize property:
“[If a person is] arrested for an offense to which forfeiture applies, the person is convicted by a criminal court of the offense, and the state establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the property is subject to forfeiture.”
In other words, New Mexico law enforcement can no longer take your property if you’re merely suspected of a crime, or if the property is thought to have been used in a crime. Not only do they have to arrest you now, but a court has to convict you, and the state can’t take your property without proving that the property is part of the crime for which you’re convicted.
These policies are also another one of the major problems to come out of the failed War on Drugs. Think Progress reports that the state director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico said:
“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 is only the second state to do this, which is a terrible record for the “land of the free.” This is 2015, and instead of actually expanding freedom, we’ve allowed our law enforcement to limit it. The media has been focusing largely on incidents of excessive and unnecessary use of force, but this is another example of severe abuse of power. The intent behind civil asset forfeiture makes sense, but what law enforcement has done with it is nothing short of going on an extended power trip.
One of the biggest problems we have with law enforcement today is that they inspire fear, not a feeling of safety. There’s no reason to suddenly feel unsafe and unsure when an officer of the law appears. They’re supposed to protect and serve, and increasingly, they do neither.
Last year, Attorney General Eric Holder decided that federal law enforcement agencies were no longer allowed to adopt assets from state and local police departments, except in limited cases of public safety. It’s a critical first step, and hopefully the federal government will continue down that road, and provide an example to other states with abusive civil asset forfeiture policies. Kudos to New Mexico for finding a way to severely curtail this type of police abuse.