Pitfalls of Property Seizure
01/30/15 - Editorial by Renee WilkinsWith an unusual sense of haste, the Governing Body ran a midnight marathon, rushing a decision on a new DWI seizure program. The urgency with which this was pushed through was flabbergasting. Many Governing Body members were not notified this could be on the agenda in advance of receiving their packets a week earlier. No special committee (much touted by this Governing Body). No work session. Pardon me for having the audacity to say that something so serious should be approached with more reverence and thought than Social Media, which was given much more examination and deliberation by this Governing Body.
Clearly, making a solid attempt to crack down on drunk drivers is the right thing to do. But national and state headlines are littered with enough examples of property seizure run-a-muck to give us pause.
Consider under this new ordinance that you loan your car to a friend or relative whose vehicle has broken down. The friend/relative goes to the bar after work and is then stopped at a DWI checkpoint. The vehicle is seized by the police. According to the City Attorney, all you have to say is “I’m an innocent owner” shifting the burden to the government to prove you are not completely innocent. The government then has to show you had constructive knowledge that the friend/relative might drink and drive. For instance; did you know that person had a DWI 10 years ago? Have you been present when this person drank a few too many? Certainly, we all have to take some responsibility when we lend our vehicle. However, the ordinance uses ambiguous phrases like “may include, but is not limited to...” leaving the impression of stacking the deck against the innocent owner.
This ordinance also prosecutes in a civil rather than criminal capacity, allowing for speedy seizure and forfeiture of a person’s vehicle if arrested, not necessarily convicted. A hearing officer (anyone appointed by the City Manager) could hear the case within 20 days, giving the government the authority to complete forfeiture proceedings and sell their car before they are found guilty of a crime. Conversely, the innocent owner of a vehicle only has ten days to request a hearing, and could be without their vehicle for an undetermined amount of time. As yet, the remaining procedures are still to be determined.
Is vehicle seizure more effective than booting? The City Attorney herself cited a study stating that booting vehicles is more effective. She also acknowledged that Albuquerque’s seizure program did not result in any real decrease in DWI over the years and predicted that Rio Rancho may not even see a reduction for years. Habitual offenders always find a way to outsmart the system, unless they are locked up. In addition, a large percentage of vehicles have lien holders who, protected by law, recover the vehicle and often return it to the offender.
Some Governing Body members are diving head-first into the murky waters of property seizure when they should be dipping their toes and carefully considering any unseen rocks beneath the waves. It is their responsibility to ensure as little collateral damage as possible; protecting the rights of the innocent while punishing the guilty. Let’s not make the mistake of adding the lives devastated by heavy-handed government to those shattered by DWI.