The city of Albuquerque "has an unconstitutional institutional incentive to prosecute forfeiture cases, because, in practice, the forfeiture program sets its own budget and can spend, without meaningful oversight, all of the excess funds it raises from previous years," U.S. District Judge James O. Browning wrote in an order filed Saturday. "Thus, 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."
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed the lawsuit in 2016 on behalf of Arlene Harjo, whose car was seized after her son drove it while drunk.
"It's a scam and a rip-off," Harjo told Reason at the time. "They're taking property from people who just loan a vehicle to someone. It's happened a lot. Everybody I've talked to has had it happen to them or somebody they know, and everybody just pays."
Harjo was one of thousands of Albuquerque residents whose cars were seized under the city's aggressive forfeiture program. While lawsuits have forced cities like Philadelphia to reform their programs, federal judges have for the most part been unwilling to directly address the issue of profit incentive.
In a statement, Institute for Justice attorney Robert Everett Johnson said the Institute "will undoubtedly use this decision to attack civil forfeiture programs nationwide."
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