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Editorial: There’s a middle ground to booting DWI seizures

There’s no question the city of Albuquerque’s 25-year-old vehicle-seizure program needed to be revamped, and the fleshed-out policy changes announced by Mayor Tim Keller’s administration make a lot of sense.

As it currently stands, the city ordinance allows police to confiscate vehicles driven by people arrested on suspicion of a second or subsequent DWI or by anyone caught driving with a suspended or revoked license due to a DWI.

Keller issued a statement last Monday that originally suggested the city would no longer seize vehicles except in cases in which there has been a conviction.

The announcement came in the wake of a recent determination by U.S. District Judge James Browning that a plaintiff suing the city over the seizure program had “plausibly alleged an unlawful profit incentive” and making vehicle owners prove their innocence violates due process. He said the city seizure ordinance also appears to be at odds with a 2015 state law banning forfeiture without first convicting someone of a crime.

The Keller administration then rolled out a policy proposal Thursday that appears to strike a good balance between protecting the public and respecting property rights. Under it, the city will continue to seize cars from suspected drunken drivers picked up for a repeat DWI arrest. But the city won’t take ownership of the car and sell it unless the driver is convicted.

Any changes to the ordinance, however, will have to be voted on by the City Council.

The administration is also giving more protections to vehicle owners who were not the ones driving by shifting the burden of proof from the owner to the city before imposing fines and fees.

The changes should prevent another case like that of Tanya McWilliams, who signed her car over to the city because she couldn’t afford to pay $3,000 and keep it booted for nine months. It was seized after her boyfriend took her keys without permission and was arrested on suspicion of felony drunken driving.

Under the policy changes, the city will have to prove the owner knowingly loaned his/her vehicle to a repeat drunken driver or someone whose license has been revoked for driving drunk before it can penalize that owner.

Even with the changes, critics will argue the program still goes too far, because vehicles will still be confiscated before a conviction. To that, we say that waiting for a conviction before taking away a vehicle would create loopholes big enough to drive an oversized SUV full of empty beer cans through. After all, if you’ve been arrested for driving drunk and you know there’s a good chance you’ll be convicted in six months, why not transfer the title over to a relative or a friend? Sorry, city, I don’t own that vehicle anymore.

Cities have the authority to act to address a nuisance, and vehicles being used by drunken drivers certainly fall into that category given the death and destruction that result from drunken driving.

In 2017 alone, there were 146 alcohol-related crash fatalities in New Mexico – 37 of those in Bernalillo County. In 2016, there were 171 fatalities in this state due to crashes involving alcohol – 51 of those in Bernalillo County, which averages to around a person a week.

What makes DWI vehicle-seizure programs so effective is they put drunken drivers on notice that, if caught, they risk losing something tangible – the vehicle they’re driving. And that loss and severity of their deed is felt immediately.

The proposed policy changes maintain that deterrent.

Keller has struck the right balance here, and the City Council should follow the mayor’s lead and revamp the ordinance so it doesn’t get struck down by the courts.

Lives depend on it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.