A ‘gold mine’ or a civil liberties outrage? Civil forfeiture remarks go viral


“WE COULD BE CZARS”: The videotaped remarks of Las Cruces City Attorney Pete Donnelly have ignited a debate over the fairness of civil asset forfeiture laws.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — The city attorney of Las Cruces says increasingly broad interpretations of civil forfeiture laws could be “a gold mine” for authorities across the country to seize things such as expensive cars and even people’s homes.

But his remarks during a seminar filled with local government and law enforcement officials — made with an amiable bemusement that bordered on glee — were caught on tape and have turned into a gold mine for critics who say the laws turn the justice system on its head and encourage authorities to see the personal property of private citizens as a one big money grab.

“Law enforcement officials and public officials are supposed to be about the fair and impartial administration of justice,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “But when you give people bad incentives such as what you see in civil forfeiture laws, you get what you see in these videos where people are looking for opportunities to make money rather than to pursue justice.”

“We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business,” Las Cruces City Attorney Pete Connelly said at one point to the seminar’s attendees who took part in the 8-hour presentation.

Connelly was one of the featured speakers, walking attendees through the process of setting up civil forfeiture ordinances in their own communities.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize personal property that has ties to alleged criminal activity even before any guilt is decided — or even if no charges have been filed or an any arrests made.

“In civil forfeiture, there is no need to convict or even charge a property owner with a crime for that owner to lose his car, his cash, his home or other types of property,” Bullock said in telephone interview with New Mexico Watchdog. “And that’s what makes civil forfeiture so outrageous and dangerous.”

It can also mean big money. One Justice Department program collected $4.3 billion in fiscal year 2012.

Unlike criminal cases, where defendants have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, in civil asset forfeiture the state must meet a preponderance of the evidence standard to seize someone’s property. And since they are civil matters, Bullock said, defendants are not guaranteed the right to an attorney.

“Most of the time, people don’t have the financial wherewithal to fight back and go through the civil forfeiture process so they either give up or decide to settle,” Bullock said.

But it’s all legal.

Connelly told attendees that appeals courts and the New Mexico Supreme Court have upheld the law, adding that Las Cruces instituted a civil asset forfeiture statute in 2006 and has thus far collected $1 million from Las Cruces residents.

Albuquerque Chief Hearing Officer Stanley Harada, who was also at the seminar, would not tell attendees how much the state’s largest city has amassed since reforming its own law in 2002. Instead, Harada said, “I think they would rather not talk about those numbers because then it starts becoming more of a bullet-point for people that are trying to fight the program.”

But Connelly marveled at what city officials in Philadelphia have done, collecting roughly $65 million in civil asset forfeitures.

“I was amazed,” Connelly said. “Eight-thousand cases in one year, $500 a pop, is just a mind-blower. That’s 4 million bucks.”

Here’s the clip, where Connelly adds, “We could own the city”:

During the course of the day, Connelly lamented how the Las Cruces police barely missed seizing a man’s 2008 Mercedes, how a well-crafted forfeiture claim “is, what I call, a masterpiece of deception” and cites a Wall Street Journal article mentioning Philadelphia.

“It’s just as exciting as you can have it,” Connelly said. “A young guy of 22 years old is selling dope out of his daddy’s house. And he sells the dope and he gets caught. So he’s arrested and he’s put in a diversion program and everything’s happy and one bright day, his daddy gets a notice of seizure of his house. Now think about this, this is a gold mine, a gold mine, You can seize a house, not a vehicle. They seize the house and it goes on to say there’s no judiciary involved.”

Here’s the entire clip:

Connelly goes on to say that he would retitle the Wall Street Journal article from “What’s Yours Is Theirs” to “What’s Theirs is Yours” and ruminates on authorities seizing homes after potential marijuana busts.

Here’s that clip:

As for those who call civil forfeiture “evil” and “unconstitutional,” Connelly cites previous court cases upholding New Mexico’s law and tells those attending the seminar, “So you have the Court of Appeals affirmed by the (New Mexico) Supreme Court basically saying, ‘If you make money on motor vehicle seizures, it’s OK. Don’t feel bad.’ Just thought I’d mention that to you.”

Here’s that clip:

New Mexico Watchdog has left multiple messages with Connelly to explain his remarks, but he has not returned our calls.

His comments were highlighted in an article published this week in the New York Times and splashed across the Internet when Buzzfeed picked up the story.

Bullock said the videos have spiked hits on the Institute for Justice website, a libertarian nonprofit that has been on a crusade against what it calls “Policing For Profit.” News of the Santa Fe seminar sparked “outrage that people are expressing about city officials so cavalierly talking about both taking property and the desire that law enforcement has for certain types of property.”

Albuquerque City Attorney Dan Tourek distanced himself from Connelly’s remarks, telling KOB-TV, “I think a lot of the comments were very reckless.”

Tourek said Albuquerque’s civil forfeiture laws are not aimed at generating cash for the city. ”

We’ve never done that; our forfeiture program is a good program,” he said.

But the city recently unveiled a policy seizing vehicles of anyone arrested for soliciting prostitutes. The cars of first-time offenders will be booted and they’ll have to pay hundreds of dollars to get their vehicles back.

““We’re not going to tolerate it,” an Albuquerque Police Department officer told KRQE-TV in September.

“It shows how tenuous the connection can be between the supposed criminal act and the forfeiture of property,” Bullock said. “It shows there is a real incentive on the part of government to broaden the forfeiture net.”