Forfeiture law creates issues for police, state

Noel Lyn Smith
With a U-Haul of seized items in the background, Deborah Bransford, an administrator who oversees the New Mexico State Treasurer's Office forfeiture program, San Juan County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Shane Ferrari, Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal, Deputy State Treasurer Sam Collins and Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe discuss the problems that both law enforcement and the state are having in dealing with items seized under the new civil forfeiture law. The group met at the New Mexico State Treasurer's Office in Santa Fe on Wednesday.

FARMINGTON — Local law enforcement officials traveled to Santa Fe on Wednesday to demonstrate how a new state law impacts their departments' ability to store and manage abandoned, lost, stolen or seized property.

The state Forfeiture Act went into effect on July 1 after it cleared both the state House and Senate in the 2015 legislative session. The law aimed to establish uniform procedures for seized and forfeited property collected by law enforcement agencies.

Agencies are now required to store items and then transport them to the state Treasurer's Office in Santa Fe. The office can sell the items, and proceeds go into the state's general fund.

But officials from the Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield police departments and the San Juan County Sheriff's Office say the law places a strain on their departments because it is a unfunded mandate and also eliminates what was previously a source of funding for their departments.

Farmington police Officer Steve Smith loads a bike into a waiting truck at the Farmington Police Department on Tuesday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Farmington Police Department staff loaded 442 items — some wrapped in large paper bags or stored inside plastic bins — into a rental truck for the trip to Santa Fe.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe called the law a “radical revision” of the process law enforcement agencies used before to address abandoned, lost or unwanted property.

Before the new law went into effect, items like bicycles, cellphones and clothing were donated to community organizations. Other items were auctioned off, with profits going to the department, Hebbe said.

“Now, we’re obligated to take all of this to the state Treasurer’s Office,” Hebbe said, watching the items being loaded on Tuesday.

He added: “They auction it off and the state keeps the money."

Other issues the department faces include finding adequate space to store the property and paying the cost of delivering the items to the state Capitol.

“I’m stuck with an evidence room that’s filling up with property that we would have ordinarily (gotten) rid of, adding to the fact that in some cases we would have done stuff that would have profited the local community,” Hebbe said.

Items seized under the new civil forfeiture law fill a trailer that San Juan County law enforcement officials drove from Farmington to the New Mexico State Treasurer Office in Santa Fe on Wednesday.

Other law enforcement officials in the county agreed the law does not provide resources for agencies to address storage and delivery. In addition, public safety officials say they were not consulted when the bill containing the act was before state lawmakers.

Sheriff's Office Capt. Brice Current said in a telephone interview Wednesday that the agency transported approximately 200 items to Santa Fe.

At the time of the interview, Current was waiting outside the treasurer's office in Santa Fe and said he was not certain whether the office would accept the items. State officials ultimately did not take any of the items, citing a lack of storage space, and the items were transported back to San Juan County

"They didn't think about any of this," Current said about the issues surrounding the law.

Aztec Police Department Chief Mike Heal and Bloomfield Police Department Chief Randy Foster said their departments did not deliver property to Santa Fe on Wednesday, but both departments had personnel travel to the Capitol to express opinions against the bill.

“This bill has drastic impacts on people,” Foster said.

Deborah Bransford, forfeiture program administrator at the treasurer's office, said the office is in the same position as law enforcement agencies because it has not received funding to address storing property.

"We don't have a secure facility for the property," she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Bransford said the office did not accept the items county official tried to deliver on Wednesday because the agency does not have room to store them. She added that the treasurer's office contacted San Juan County law enforcement agencies before their arrival to tell them that the state agency did not have storage space.

"We've been in communication with them, and they knew our position," she said.

Bransford said she met with the local officials who traveled to Santa Fe on Wednesday, and they discussed working together to find a solution that would ease the problems.

In addition, she said, the treasurer's office has submitted a funding request in the current legislative session to address the issue.

Before county law enforcement tried to deliver items on Wednesday, the Roswell Police Department delivered a couple of bicycles to the state office, and Bransford said the agency is storing those at its office.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

Boxes and bags filled with evidence sit in a truck on Tuesday at the Farmington Police Department.