Wednesday, November 23, 2022

NM lawmakers prepare bills targeting financial exploitation

By Dan McKay

Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Ellen Leitzer, co-founder of the Senior Citizens Law Office, participate in a discussion Tuesday about their bill to make it a criminal offense to exploit vulnerable people. The bill wasn’t endorsed in the committee hearing, but Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, offered a series of suggestions he said would improve the measure. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — With a 60-day session on the horizon, New Mexico legislators spent much of Tuesday exploring ways to recruit more police officers, combat organized retail crime and stop financial exploitation.

In a hearing at the Capitol, lawmakers presented a host of ideas to the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee for feedback as they prepare to file bills ahead of the 2023 legislative session.

Two proposals centered on the financial exploitation of elders or others vulnerable to abuse — one establishing a new criminal offense, the other providing for civil remedies.

Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, presented legislation that would create the crimes of financial exploitation of an adult who is older, vulnerable or disabled and unlawful use of power of attorney.

Stealing, of course, is already a crime, supporters said, but it can be difficult to prosecute cases in which a person has signed a legal document granting someone else authority over financial decisions.

“The consequences of financial exploitation can be devastating,” Padilla said. “New Mexico’s elders and vulnerable adults deserve protection from financial abuse.”

Feliz Rael and Ellen Leitzer of the Senior Citizens Law Office in Albuquerque said serial offenders prey on older people. Leitzer spoke about a client who depleted his $60,000 in savings after a younger woman picked him up at a senior center and promised a relationship.

“It’s really awful,” Rael said. Repeat offenders “are still out there preying on people.”

Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, presented legislation that would create a new cause of action allowing the filing of civil lawsuits under a Financial Exploitation Act. It would include incentives, she said, designed to encourage a potential defendant to repay the money quickly to avoid punitive damages.

Without the bill, Duhigg said, the state doesn’t have any “great legal tools” to address when a person who takes advantage of an older adult or person with a cognitive impairment.

The committee didn’t offer a unanimous endorsement of either bill. But members offered suggestions and potential technical changes that could be incorporated into the legislation before the start of the Jan. 17 session.

Also Tuesday, the committee heard proposals to:

Combat organized retail crime with a new law designed to target thieves who hit one store after another while limiting how much they take from each location to avoid more severe criminal penalties.

The legislation would establish penalties based on the total value of merchandise stolen, even if it was taken on more than one occasion.

Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said retail thieves are growing sophisticated enough to warrant the new law.

■ Revising rules in the state pension system to allow people to retire at their full salary if they serve long enough.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said it would help the state keep veteran police officers and encourage longer service without damaging the financial health of the Public Employees Retirement Association.

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NM lawmakers prepare bills targeting financial exploitation

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