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Mayor wants to give ‘Johns’ the boot

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“Johns” who are looking to pay for some booty may soon find a boot on their cars.

A proposed ordinance headed to the City Council this summer would allow police to seize any motor vehicle used in a prostitution-related crime. That includes soliciting a prostitute from the car.

Mayor Richard Berry, whose administration drafted the proposal, said the goal is to allow the city to put a boot on Johns’ cars for 30 days for a first offense and a year for a second offense. A similar city program already targets people arrested for drunken driving.

“We think this is going to be a tremendous deterrent for those soliciting the services of a prostitute,” Berry said Wednesday in an interview.

City Councilor Roxanna Meyers is sponsoring the proposal on Berry’s behalf. She said it’s aimed at dampening the demand for prostitutes.

The American Civil Liberties Union has raised legal questions about the proposed prostitution ordinance, partly because it allows the city to seize a vehicle upon the driver’s arrest, without a conviction. The driver would have to pay $50 to request a hearing to contest the seizure.

“We are concerned that taking away someone’s car or truck is an excessive penalty for a first-time petty misdemeanor, especially if the individual is found innocent of the crime,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “Citizens shouldn’t have to pay the city to get their day in court to determine whether their vehicle was lawfully seized.”

Simonson said the ACLU is also “concerned that taking away someone’s vehicle on top of fines or jail time may constitute double jeopardy, or unconstitutionally penalizing someone twice for the same crime.”

The ordinance relies on the city’s civil authority to “abate nuisances.” The city has used its anti-nuisance authority to demolish dilapidated houses, seize cars driven by drunken drivers and even set up the since-disbanded red-light camera program.

The camera operation survived several court challenges.

Under Meyers’ proposal, the city would declare a motor vehicle used in prostitution as the “instrumentality of the nuisance.”

The ordinance says the Police Department may seize the vehicle during an arrest and offer it back with an “immobilization device,” such as a boot. The owner would sign an agreement with the city and pay a fee, which isn’t specified in the ordinance.

But the ordinance allows the city go farther than just temporary boots.

A police officer could seize the vehicle at the time of arrest and serve the person with a “Notice of Forfeiture” and also mail it to whoever is the registered owner of the vehicle.

The owner, in turn, could 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 and whether it should be released.

Police could pursue permanent forfeiture of the vehicle and, with a court order, sell it. Officers are also empowered to take custody of a vehicle and have it towed to another “official location.”

However, Berry said the intent is to temporarily “boot” the cars of offenders.

Berry and Meyers said the idea is part of the city’s efforts to crack down on human trafficking, the victims of which are often forced into prostitution. An ordinance approved last year calls for anti-human-trafficking notices to be posted in strip clubs, among other requirements.

Under state law, patronizing a prostitute is a petty misdemeanor, the maximum penalties for which are up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Berry said there are more than 300 “arrests per year of Johns in this situation. Right now, the penalties aren’t severe enough to make it a deterrent.”

Meyers said the goal is to tackle the demand for prostitutes.

“Johns often are not cited at all,” she said. “I think this booting ordinance, it’s going to be well-known. You’re going to think twice about it” before soliciting a prostitute.

As for why vehicles are targeted specifically, the ordinance says they are often used in prostitution-related crimes.

“Cruising in motor vehicles in areas of high prostitution activity is a nuisance in the city of Albuquerque and other metropolitan areas across the United States,” the proposed ordinance says.

Furthermore, if someone wants to talk to a prostitute or someone “a reasonably objective person would conclude may be a prostitute,” they shouldn’t do so from a motor vehicle, even if the chat isn’t for criminal purposes, the proposal says.

The proposed ordinance was introduced during last week’s City Council meeting and referred to a committee for consideration. It’s not clear when it will come back to the full council.

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