The number of vehicles seized from suspected drunken driving has steadily declined in recent years, mirroring a drop in drunken driving arrests in the city.
That also means the city’s vehicle-seizure program could actually lose money during the current fiscal year.
There’s likely several reasons for the trend. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have made it easier for people to get a sober ride home, and the penalties for drunken driving convictions have become more strict, which also might be a deterrent, according to city and police officials. The number of police officers in Albuquerque has also declined since 2010.
The city of Albuquerque in the 2010 fiscal year seized nearly 2,000 vehicles from people suspected of either a second or subsequent drunken driving case or driving on a suspended or revoked license. The city made $1.81 million from the practice that year, according to city documents.
That revenue comes from either settlement agreements, and fines and fees people have to pay to get their vehicles back, or how much the police make from selling the vehicles if no agreement can be reached. The money is then used on the program’s expenses, such as leasing a lot for the city to store seized vehicles.
In the past fiscal year, employees who work in the seizure unit sometimes pass time by pulling weeds or washing city vehicles because there’s not enough administrative work, said Lt. Donovan Rivera, who oversees the vehicle seizure program.
Rivera wasn’t made available for an interview, but he discussed the program and its recent financial struggles during a deposition that was taken in May as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit that is challenging the city’s seizure program.
“There’s some times where it’s just low in the office,” Rivera said, according to a transcript of his deposition. “But also, obviously, financially, (the decline in DWI arrests is) hurting the program.”
Mayor Richard Berry said the seizure program is intended to be a deterrent to drunken driving, not a way to boost city revenue.
“I don’t see this as a money grab,” he said in an interview. “There has to be some consequences for you to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and use it as a 6,000-pound projectile driving drunk. There is just no excuse for that. When we catch somebody for the second time drinking and driving, that’s not an accident. That’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Linda Cutler-Padilla, an executive budget analyst for the city, said during a deposition in May that the seizure program may lose money during the current fiscal year.
“This is really honestly the first year … that we are concerned about the expenditures,” she said, according to a transcript of the deposition. “This year, the (projected revenue) will not cover what they’ve historically spent on the program.”
The city of Albuquerque is one of a handful of jurisdictions in the state where the police can seize vehicles after certain drunken driving arrests. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputies also have a program.
After most Albuquerque vehicle seizures, a person has to pay $850 up to more than $5,000, plus other fines and fees, to get their vehicle back. And they have to agree to have the vehicle booted and rendered immobile for a designated period of time, Rivera said.
If the city and the vehicle owner can’t reach an agreement, the city takes ownership of the vehicle and sells it at auction.
Dolly Otero, a victims service specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the agency supports vehicle seizure programs and considers them a tool to battle drunken driving, along with interlock devices.
Robert Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which has filed the lawsuit against the city over its vehicle seizure program, said declining revenue may give the city an incentive to seize vehicles under questionable circumstances, which is an allegation made in the federal lawsuit.
“The federal claim is that the city has an incentive to bring in as much money as possible. When revenue goes down, they are going to have to make hard choices,” he said. “If your revenue is going down because of factors external to the program, for instance the rise in Uber, that just means you have more incentive to take property from people who haven’t really done anything wrong.”
The program has not been without controversy. The ongoing federal lawsuit that Johnson is litigating was brought to the city on behalf of Arlene Harjo, whose car was seized when she wasn’t driving it. Her lawsuit is seeking to end the program.
Harjo’s car was seized after her son used it, and was stopped outside of the city limits and arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Harjo’s son had told her he was going to the gym, but instead went drinking and then drove, according to the lawsuit.
Rivera acknowledged in the deposition that Harjo’s car shouldn’t have been seized because it was stopped outside Albuquerque police’s jurisdiction.
But overall, he said the seizure program could be one of the reasons why drunken driving arrests are declining.
In the 2013 fiscal year, there were 4,219 drunken driving cases filed in Metropolitan Court, which is where the vast majority of drunken driving cases are filed. In the 2016 fiscal year, there were only 2,397 cases filed, according to Metropolitan Court statistics. The cases include DWI arrests by Albuquerque police, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies within the county.
While drunken driving cases litigated in Metropolitan Court have significantly declined in recent years, felony DWIs that are heard in district court have stayed relatively steady. Felony drunken driving cases are filed when people are arrested in a fourth or subsequent DWI charge or drunken driving cases where people are killed, for example.
“They know they can get their vehicles seized if they have a prior conviction or are driving on revoked, so I think it makes people think about not driving drunk. I mean, over the years I’ve been there, seizures have gone down,” Rivera said, according to a transcript of his deposition.
“Is it because people are getting the idea of seizures? Maybe. Is it because now you’ve got (ride-sharing) services? Maybe. But they’ve gone down. But is it because of specifically the Seizure Unit? Maybe. I just don’t know. That would be the million-dollar question.”