EDITORIAL: Federal judge breaks up car theft ring run by Albuquerque police

Albuquerque is America’s stolen vehicle capital — and the numbers don’t even include the take generated by those running one of the area’s most active car-theft rings: the city of Albuquerque.

For years, the city allowed police to take cars from those who were arrested for a second drunken-driving offense or driving with a suspended license. In many cases, the driver didn’t even own the vehicle. Yet police took the car anyway and then forced the actual owner to cough up thousands of dollars to retrieve the property. To make things worse, the money generated helped pay the salaries of those involved in the program.

Last week — in a victory for those fighting to reform civil forfeiture laws — a federal judge finally put a stop to the Albuquerque car-theft operation, ruling it unconstitutional.

“The forfeiture program … violates procedural due process,” wrote U.S. District Judge James O. Browning, “because owners have to prove that their cars are not subject to civil forfeiture.”

In other words, it stands the cherished concept of innocent until proven guilty on its head.

The judge also looked askance at the fact that the Albuquerque police were benefiting financially from the vehicles they confiscated.

“There is a ‘realistic possibility’ that forfeiture officials’ judgment ‘will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain’ — the more revenues they raise, the more revenues they can spend,” he wrote.

Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement may seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables from people who are never convicted or even charged with a crime. New Mexico lawmakers in 2015 instituted severe restrictions on the practice — requiring a criminal conviction, among other things — but Albuquerque officials argued the law didn’t apply to its municipal codes and continued to seize vehicles.

The case before the court involved Arlene Harjo. Police took her car in 2015 after her son drove it while intoxicated. The city offered to return the vehicle if she paid $4,000 and agreed to have it booted for 18 months. Instead, Ms. Harjo sued — and won.

Judge Browning’s decision will no doubt be used by reformers to challenge forfeiture statutes across the country. Good. It’s past time for members of the federal judiciary to seriously examine whether civil forfeiture is consistent with the nation’s constitutional principles. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last year telegraphed a willingness to see precisely such a case make its way to the high court.

Nobody should lose their property to the government without first being convicted of a crime. The Harjo case moves us closer to that day. Nevada lawmakers should take notice.

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