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How New Mexico is stopping cops from seizing money without a conviction

During a routine traffic stop, police seized $17,000 in cash from Stephen Skinner – without an arrest or conviction

On a beautiful fall day in September 2010, Stephen Skinner and his son pulled out of their driveway in Chicago and were on their way to Las Vegas. The father-son road trip would include a few days of gambling and many more days of hard work, helping Stephen’s sister remodel a house she had just bought.

Not paying attention, the Skinners’ GPS accidently directed them to “Las Vegas, New Mexico,” rather than Las Vegas, Nevada. Within a few miles of crossing into the Land of Enchantment, they discovered it was anything but.

Skinner was going about five miles over the speed limit when a state trooper pulled him over and asked to search the car, which Skinner allowed.

The officer told Skinner, then 58, he was going to pat him down for weapons and have a canine officer sniff the perimeter of his car for contraband. The search didn’t turn up any weapons or drugs.  The search did, however, reveal something else: $17,000 in cash that Skinner and his son had in their luggage. Skinner had his money in an envelope, while his son had his divided for each day they would be in Vegas. 

Though Skinner explained this, the officer found it suspicious and called the Drug Enforcement Agency. According to a police audio recording, he told Skinner, “The way you are hiding [the money] in all the pockets of your clothes instead of keeping it together, it doesn’t make any sense to me.” 

Skinner, who is black, thinks racial profiling was involved.

When police found Skinner's envelopes, one officer is heard on a recording exclaiming, “This boy has three thousand right here alone!”   

After two and a half hours of aggressive questioning, the officers let the Skinners and their money go. But it wasn’t over. After a quick stop for lunch, the two were back on the road and back in the sights of law enforcement. Two hundred miles after the first stop, local police pulled them over in Albuquerque, New Mexico, allegedly for changing lanes without using a turn signal. This time, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security accompanied the police.

“They went immediately to the money because they knew where it was,” Skinner said.

He said the federal agent took their money without giving them a receipt. They also took the Skinners’ rental car.

“We had to force it out of the officer to give us the name and telephone number of who we could contact to get our money back,” he said. “He was really aggressive. His mannerism … was out of hand. I felt like he was trying to provoke me into doing something where I would have got in a fight with him, or would have got shot.”

The Skinners were neither arrested nor charged with any crime. Officers dropped the pair off at the Albuquerque airport – stranding them with no money and no transportation.

'Without probable cause'

Skinner and his son lost their money through a controversial law enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Under the practice, state and local law enforcement – often working in cooperation with federal authorities – can seize money and property based simply on the suspicion it might be tied to a crime.

Billions of dollars have been seized in civil forfeiture – and all of it has come from people who were never charged with a crime.
America Tonight

According to The Washington Post, police across the country have taken more than $2.5 billion in cash from 62,000 people who were never charged with a crime since 2001.

Ironically, among those who’ve come to criticize the practice is Brad Cates, the former director of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office from 1985 to 1989, who helped establish the aggressive use of civil forfeiture.

“All of the protections we know in our Bill of Rights are abrogated by the very nature of asset forfeiture,” Cates said. “Last I checked, it’s legal to own money in America. You’re allowed to have money, you’re allowed to travel with money, and in order to take it, you’re supposed to have probable cause; you’re supposed to have a federal judge get a warrant.”

The original intent of the law, Cates explained, was to combat the drug trade. And for a time, he says, it was working, as millions of dollars were seized from international drug dealers. But somewhere along the way, he believes it went off the rails. Today, there are more than 400 federal laws allowing for asset forfeiture.

“We went from a very targeted, specific purpose to a widespread program in America, where people are having things taken without probable cause,” Cates said.

As a result of Cates' efforts and mounting outrage over cases like the Skinners’, New Mexico has become the first state to abolish civil forfeiture. Now, a person has to be convicted of a crime before their assets can be forfeited to the state.

Cates says that this new law is good for citizens and law enforcement, as it simultaneously strengthens criminal forfeiture, in which a person’s money and property are taken after they are convicted of a crime.

Ending civil forfeiture?

Not everyone in law enforcement is happy about the changes in New Mexico. In fact, the ban on civil forfeiture was strongly opposed by many police associations. The New Mexico Police Chiefs Association says the new law will cost local police departments an effective tool for fighting crime and a valuable source of funds.

In addition to prohibiting civil forfeiture at a state level, the new law also prohibits federal money from coming back to local police departments. That means if local authorities work with the federal agents on a case resulting in a forfeiture, the money goes to the state.

The new civil forfeiture rules passed by lawmakers at New Mexico's Capitol prohibit federal money from coming back to local police departments. That means if local authorities work with the federal agents on a case resulting in a forfeiture, the money goes to the state.
America Tonight

“I think that we’re not going to have the resources available to commit to drug enforcement, whether that is vehicles, equipment, overtime for officers, or whatever it may be,” said Fred Radosevich, president of the New Mexico Police Chiefs Association and the chief in the town of Edgewood.

Radosevich says the vast majority of seizures are legitimate, but he concedes it’s likely mistakes occasionally get made.  However, he points out that under the old system in New Mexico, local and state law enforcement in the state had to go before a judge to justify their seizures.

“We still had to show the court that we took that money for a reason,” he said. “And then, if the court says, "No, you didn’t," then we have to give it back.”

Still, New Mexico’s new law doesn’t completely end civil forfeiture because it doesn’t apply to federal agencies. Despite a pledge earlier this year by then-Attorney General Eric Holder to curtail the practice, it’s still going strong at the federal level. Between 2008 and 2013, the federal government took nearly $7 billion in money and property under civil forfeitures. Even under Holder’s reforms, more than 90 percent of that would have still been eligible for seizure.

We went from a very targeted, specific purpose to a widespread program in America, where people are having things taken without probable cause.

Brad Cates

former director, DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Office

Despite America Tonight’s requests, neither the New Mexico Department of Public Safety nor the federal Department of Justice would comment for this report.

Stephen Skinner and his son eventually got their money back, but only after the American Civil Liberties Union fought for nearly two years on their behalf. Since federal agents who took their money, they never had a hearing in state court. But others people who can't find or afford an attorney, simply take the loss.

“I’m a citizen. I worked all my life here in this country. I paid my taxes, never got into trouble; never had the idea this would happen,” Skinner said. “I don’t trust the cops at all any more.”

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