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Editorial: For safety’s sake, ABQ must revamp DWI seizures

OK, Albuquerque city councilors and Mayor Tim Keller. It’s time to act.

U.S. District Judge James Browning has ruled the city’s vehicle-seizure program in its current incarnation is unconstitutional. City leaders should take that ruling as their cue to revamp the controversial – but necessary – ordinance to bring it into legal compliance.

And that work should begin immediately.

Currently, 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. And owners who were not driving would be faced with fines, fees and administrative hearings to get their cars back. The city often would agree to release the vehicle for thousands of dollars and a boot agreement.

In his 105-page opinion, Browning noted it’s unconstitutional for the city to make vehicle owners prove their innocence when their cars are seized after being driven by someone else.

“The forfeiture program … violates procedural due process, because owners have to prove that their cars are not subject to civil forfeiture,” Browning wrote.

He also ruled it was improper that the money the city collected from the program – which has been around in various forms since at least 1996 – was used to pay the salaries of employees who work in the program. He said the funds should go to the city’s general fund, then be appropriated for seizure program operations.

Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice, which worked on the case, says Browning’s ruling could affect municipalities around the country that run vehicle seizure programs similar to the one in Albuquerque.

This ruling doesn’t come as much of a surprise to city officials since Browning had previously expressed concerns with the ordinance. Alicia Manzano, a spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office, said in a statement “this ruling confirms our concerns with the past approach and the need to protect the constitutional rights of people in our community.”

Blueprint already in the works

The Keller administration earlier this year rolled out a policy proposal that called for the city to continue seizing cars from suspected drunken drivers picked up for a repeat DWI arrest. But, under the proposal, the city wouldn’t actually take ownership of the car and sell it unless the driver was convicted. The administration’s proposal would also give 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.

Couple those changes with a requirement that money generated by the vehicle seizure program be deposited into the general fund, and the City Council has a good blueprint for how to get the vehicle seizure ordinance back on track.

This ordinance is critical because of the death and destruction that results 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.

The benefit of Albuquerque’s DWI vehicle-seizure program is that it puts repeat drunken drivers on notice that, if caught, they risk losing something tangible – the vehicle they’re driving. The consequence is felt immediately – not months down the road when their criminal case is adjudicated – and that’s what makes it so effective. Keller and the City Council need to come together to rewrite this important ordinance so that it continues to be a deterrent for repeat drunken drivers while also adhering to the letter and spirit of the law and the constitution.

And they should move quickly, because the program is needed to cut down on the carnage.

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.