Civil forfeiture protocols need review by feds

— Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico has a long and disturbing history with federal civil forfeiture law, with local as well as federal law enforcement officials taking advantage of the lower burden of proof to help themselves to someone else’s property.

Especially cash.

So it is important that in the most recent publicized case — involving an Iranian-born used car dealer who does a big cash business but was often below the $10,000 reporting threshold — the feds have backed off and returned the money they took without being told to by a judge.

But it isn’t enough. The feds need to review their protocols for how these cases get filed and what kind of evidence is called for.

Reza Ella, after all, was never charged with a crime and it’s perfectly reasonable for the naturalized American citizen to conclude he was targeted by Homeland Security because of his ethnicity.

Ella owns an automobile dealership in Albuquerque. After front-page coverage by Albuquerque Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher of Ella’s plight and what he says was his ruined business, Ella will get back the $841,883.84 the Department of Homeland Security took from him in January — with interest.

It’s Ella’s second go-round with getting back greenbacks. In 2007, the feds seized $489,732.02 without any charges being filed, then returned all but $12,000, according to the settlement agreement. That non-case also centered on alleged violations of bank reporting laws.

And both follow myriad seizures in New Mexico that have cash, and often race or ethnicity, in common.

There was the 60-year-old African American man who was called “boy” during a 2010 traffic stop in Raton. It took him two years to get back nearly $17,000 in cash that was confiscated during a minor traffic stop down the road in Albuquerque.

And the African American man on his way to California who had to surrender his $11,000 to law enforcement after going 8 miles under the freeway speed limit west of Albuquerque.

And the hundreds of individuals whose cash was seized by Bernalillo County deputies under a former administration. A district judge ordered the county to pay more than $3 million in damages last year; the city of Albuquerque settled with the plaintiffs for $882,900 in 2009 for the police department’s role.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls it “profiling for profit.” Considering the agencies doing the seizing — under a law that requires people prove they got their cash legitimately, rather than the arresting agencies prove they didn’t — get to keep around 80 percent of what they take, it’s little wonder there’s an ingrained finders-keepers mentality to funding law enforcement.

That practice has now been stopped by a state judge when it comes to the city and county.

And it’s better late than never for the feds to admit that a cash economy in and of itself isn’t a crime.