Sheriff will pitch forfeiture ordinance

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Curry County Sheriff Matt Murray wants a new law enabling his department not only to seize property of drug dealers, but to sell it and keep the proceeds.

Seizures are already happening. But Murray said under the current system, his office turns the property over to the state or federal government and waits to be given a percentage of the value from a pool of all agencies involved in the arrest.

Murray plans to ask county commissioners Tuesday to write a forfeiture ordinance allowing the sheriff’s office to “seize and assume property used in the furtherance of a crime.”

Murray said he got the idea from a deputy, who transferred from another community in New Mexico that had just such an ordinance. After some research, Murray said he now believes such an ordinance is possible in Curry County.

Since taking office about two years ago, Murray said seizures have netted the county about $36,000. Murray said most of that money was used to buy an extended-cab truck for transporting prisoners.

But Murray said the money was only a small portion of the value of property seized. The sheriff said the county is missing out on money that could go back into the community.

Murray said it’s difficult to estimate how much money the county could have made because of the way state and federal systems divide proceeds. But with an average of at least one seizure a month, Murray said he believes the amount is “significant.”

“Right now everything that is seized that goes in the state general fund is not helping our fight against crime or narcotics locally,” Murray said.

The sheriff’s office could also use some seized items rather than just sell them. Vehicles and other property could be used in investigations, for undercover operations or surveillance, Murray said.

When property seizures go into complex assets or high dollar amounts, Murray said it would be prudent to continue using the federal system. It’s the smaller, less complicated seizures — vehicles and cash — that could benefit the county, he said.

Undersheriff Wesley Waller said seizures can extend to any, “property that’s being used to facilitate (a) crime.”

Waller cited as examples: Vehicles used to transport narcotics, cash or even homes used to conduct narcotics transactions or manufacturing.

The burden is on the defendant to prove the property was not being used to commit a crime.

And while narcotics is the classic example, the ordinance could encompass any criminal activity, Murray said.

Murray said he has coordinated the concept with Clovis police and they are in agreement the county ordinance could be enforced within city limits, allowing the two agencies to share in the proceeds. Likewise with any seizures made by the Region V Drug Task Force.

“It will be used in the region to combat crime,” Murray said.