While New Mexico legislators wasted tax funds on pointless bickering for 60 days instead of legislating for the most part, they did pass one bill unanimously that actually enhances personal rights and liberties.
That was a bill that stops police from taking a person’s property or other assets before that person has been convicted of a crime.
This bill corrects a situation that never should have been allowed in a free society, especially one whose Bill of Rights specifically prohibits unreasonable search and seizure of property.
We applaud Republican Rep. Zach Cook of Ruidoso for sponsoring the measure. The governor should sign it immediately.
The case that inspired this bill occurred in September 2010. Stephen Skinner and Jonathon Breasher, a father and son, were stopped first in Raton by a New Mexico State trooper for driving 5 mph over the speed limit.
The officer issued them a written warning and then asked to search their vehicle. They consented and the trooper found $16,925 in cash intended for their trip to Las Vegas in their luggage, according to a 2012 press release from the American Civil Liberties Union, New Mexico Chapter.
After being detained for nearly two hours by the side of the road, Skinner and Breasher were released. As the pair entered Albuquerque, however, Albuquerque police pulled them over for an “improper lane change.” Minutes later a federal Homeland Security officer arrived on the scene, seized the money in their luggage, and “declared their assets forfeit to the government,” according to the ACLU news release.
The agents then seized Skinner and Breasher’s rental car and dropped them off at the Albuquerque airport, stranded with no money or transportation — and no charges filed against them.
When armed law enforcers take money or property from people without charging them with a crime, it’s called “unreasonable search and seizure.” When others take cash or property from people under threat of violence, however, it is called “robbery,” a third-degree felony.
Skinner and Breasher reached a settlement with the federal government with the help of the ACLU, but a law specifically prohibiting this kind of police-state activity in New Mexico is long overdue.
When federal authorities confiscate cash and property in such cases, 80 percent goes back to the county in which the seizure took place, which provides plenty of motivation for trumped-up search and seizure situations like Skinner and Breasher’s.
The Santa Fe New Mexican quoted the ACLU as calling this practice “policing for profit.” We call it despotism, the same kind we see Vladimir Putin trying to restore in Russia, and we support the New Mexico Legislature in calling a halt to this kind of theft by authority.