City attorney catching heat for comments on forfeiture

connelly

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – A New Mexico police department is under fire for taking peoples stuff and making money off it. In fact, a city official was filmed joking about it

His comments caught the attention not only of his peers, but of the nation.

The practice of taking cars belonging to suspected drunk drivers – often times without a conviction, has drawn criticism for years. Albuquerque had its DWI seizure program in place since 2000. Now the city attorney in Las Cruces is taking heat for what he said about his city’s program.

“This guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new, just so beautiful,” Pete Connelly said at a September conference on vehicle seizure in Santa Fe. “The cops were undercover it was like ‘ah!’ ”

“Just as he’s about to touch the car, our police officer goes ‘Whack!’ You’re under arrest.’ He thought they hit the jackpot. So we thought ‘Damn! We got a 2008 Mercedes Benz. This is going to go to auction. This is going to be great.’ ”

Connelly goes on to talk about how writing a forfeiture complaint is a “masterpiece of deception” and that every once in a while they will target “exotic cars,” but he says police shouldn’t feel bad. Connelly’s speech caught the attention of the Institute of Justice, The New York Times and internet giant Buzzfeed.

“This is a law that invites the sort of abuses that are documented in these videos and that’s why the civil forfeiture law should be changed or abolished in New Mexico,” said Scott Bullock, an attorney with the Institute for Justice.

The Times article mentions specific seizure programs in Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.

City Attorney David Tourek says Connelly’s comments were reckless. “They are very wrong,” he said.

Since the Duke City began running the controversial DWI seizure program , any second-offense driver busted faces having the vehicle taken away. But Tourek says the city’s program works and they never target certain cars or use the money to fill their pockets.

“The money that is obtained from the sale of these vehicles that are seized from drunk drivers goes back into the forfeiture program,” Tourek said.

The Institute of Justice says many times property is taken before someone is charged, let alone convicted in a court of law.

“People need to educate themselves about this so if they are caught up in it, they can fight back,” Bullock said.

It’s not just cars that departments are making money off of. According to the New York Times, officers were told in these seminars around the country to try and seize things like flat screen TVs, cash and even homes. Speakers told officers to avoid jewelry because it’s too hard to get rid of and computers because everyone already has one.

KRQE News 13 reached out to the Las Cruces city attorney for comment Monday but didn’t hear back.

Tourek says the practice has been upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

It’s not clear how much has been seized in Las Cruces and Albuquerque, but the Times reports the Justice Department has seized $4.3 billion worth of stuff in 2012 compared to $407 million in 2001.

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