The City of Albuquerque has been hit with a proposed class action that alleges it operates an illegal car forfeiture program that has generated millions in revenue at the expense of its residents.
According to the case, Albuquerque seizes and auctions more than 1,000 cars each year; however, half of these vehicles were owned not by the offenders themselves but by their friends or family, who had committed no crime. The city does not conduct any investigation to determine who the owner of the car is before seizing it, the complaint alleges.
“When owners objected that they needed their car and had not done anything wrong, they were often told by officers or city attorneys that the program was ‘completely legal,’ and fighting it would be a waste of time and money,” the case reads.
In order to retrieve confiscated vehicles, the suit explains, owners must pay an amount determined by city attorneys, which ranged from $500 to over $5,000 plus a requirement to boot the car for a certain amount of time. Instead of paying these “enormous fees” and to avoid the cost of fighting the seizure, some owners supposedly opted to buy their own cars back at auction. Others who paid the city’s fees sometimes found that their cars were damaged when they got them back, the suit adds.
The case claims the program’s mission is to generate profit for the city, as evidenced by the fact that seizure unit employees undergo annual performance reviews that look for an increase in revenue from the amount of cars they confiscated that year. Between 2009 and 2016, the suit says, the program generated $11.8 million, which was used to buy police cars and radar guns, as well as pay the salaries and benefits of seizure unit personnel.