Albuquerque, NM

Tactics Used

Buyer Arrests
Reverse stings
Auto seizure
Community service
Public education
Neighborhood action
SOAP orders
John school
Web stings
License suspension

Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, with an estimated population of about 560,000. Albuquerque is located in the high desert of north-central New Mexico, along the Rio-Grande, and serves as the county seat of Bernalillo County. The city was founded in 1706 as a Spanish colony.  Albuquerque has well-documented problems with prostitution and sex trafficking, including child sex trafficking and prostitution-related homicide.  At least two serial killers who specifically target prostituted women have operated in the city, and in 2011 a New Mexico State District Judge – the chief criminal court judge in Albuquerque – was arrested  and charged with raping a prostituted woman, making and selling a videotape of the rape, and intimidation of a witness. According to the criminal complaint, an informant helped a detective to locate and purchase a DVD of the sexual assault for $400.

To combat the array of problems stemming from commercial sex, police have been conducting periodic reverse stings since at least 1980, and perhaps longer. In past years, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) did not use shaming tactics (i.e., releasing the identities of men arrested in reverse stings), nor did they seize autos or apply any post-arrest punishment aside from a $200 fine and up to one day in jail while sex buyers were being processed and posting bail. APD began conducting internet-based reverse stings in 2005. One operation focused on prostitution at the annual New Mexico State Fair, which arrested dozens of prostituted women and at least six sex buyers.

In the 1990s, persistent prostitution and sex trafficking problems spurred the formation of neighborhood-led efforts, some of which targeted the demand for commercial sex. In 2011, after the high profile scandal of a sitting judge raping a prostituted person and others – including a former university president allegedly involved in an elite online prostitution ring – community groups (such as RELEASE) began investigating anti-demand tactics, particularly whether the john school model could be employed in Albuquerque. However, some thought a john school would not viable because sex buyers rarely face severe punishment and prosecutors almost never argue for a jail sentence for a sex buyer. The idea did not garner enough support to be implemented in Albuquerque.

Vehicle Seizure

In mid-September 2013, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and other city officials, in addition to community advocates (e.g., RELEASE) presented a proposal for the city to adopt an ordinance that would enable APD officers to seize vehicles used for the purposes of prostitution. The ordinance allows police to seize and hold the vehicles of arrested sex buyers for 30 days for a first offense, and a year for a second offense. In November 2013, the ordinance passed through a city council vote, 8 to 1.

A vehicle may be subject to seizure or forfeiture if its driver or passenger has been arrested for prostitution, patronizing prostituted persons, promoting prostitution, or accepting the earnings of a prostituted person.  The ordinance is intended to be used to seize the vehicles of pimps or sex buyers when the vehicle is used in the course of the crime.

The one dissenting voter raised questions about people wrongly accused of a crime and the possibility of someone losing their car if a family member borrows it without their knowledge.  In response, it was noted that the ordinance has an “innocent owner” provision that would allow someone to get their car back.  Also, owners can contest the seizure by requesting an administrative hearing for $50. The hearing officer would determine whether the police officer had probable cause to seize the vehicle.

The ordinance relies on the city’s civil authority to “abate nuisances” which has been used to demolish dilapidated houses, seize cars driven by drunken drivers and target other activities.  The ordinance declares vehicles used in prostitution as the “instrumentality of the nuisance.”  The DWI seizure program has survived court challenges, city officials said.  In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico raised legal questions about the prostitution ordinance, partly because it allows the city to seize a vehicle upon the driver’s arrest, without a conviction.

The ordinance said that the APD may seize a vehicle during an arrest and offer it back with an “immobilization device,” such as a boot. The “boot,” which requires the offender pay a $850 fee, enables officers to seize sex buyers’ vehicles (with probable cause) for up to 30 days. The city, however, is not be required to offer the immobilization option to every offender. Instead, a police officer could seize the vehicle and serve the person with a “Notice of Forfeiture” and also mail it to the registered owner of the vehicle.  In early November 2014, city officials clarified to local news outlets that sex buyers re-arrested after being served with “a boot” may be subject to vehicle forfeiture.

Reverse Stings, Shaming, and Neighborhood Action

APD has continued conducting reverse stings in recent years, often at the request of the community. In 2019, APD arrested 15 sex buyers in a sex trafficking sting after a neighborhood crime watch group reported prostitution in the area between San Pedro and Louisiana. APD Commander Mizel Garcia said,

“They tell us who look for– what types of car, what times of day. To me, it’s something I want our community to know– if you are having this problem, please let us know and we will be out there.”

In that 2019 reverse sting, APD also used shaming by releasing photographs of the arrested sex buyers. Commander Garcia said he believed that identifying the men who were arrested serves as a warning to others. APD was also preparing to conduct additional stings during the State Fair and Balloon Fiesta.

A 2020 operation resulted in the arrest of eleven people for prostitution-related offenses, including one man who attempted to pay an undercover officer for sexual services with a hamburger. This sex buyer was also subjected to shaming through the publishing of his name and picture.

Key Sources

State New Mexico
Type City
Population 559374
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