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City of ABQ trying to return seized vehicles

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The city is trying to return hundred of vehicles that remain on Albuquerque Police Department’s seizure lot. This photo shows the state of the lot in 2014. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

After years of lawsuits, controversies, court decisions and a new mayoral administration, Albuquerque’s controversial vehicle seizure program has officially come to an end.

And now city attorneys say they are in the process of trying to return hundreds of cars seized from suspected drunken drivers over the years. They say the vehicles will be returned free of charge, and owners will not have to pay fines or fees.

As of Thursday, 354 vehicles remained on the lot on Edith near Montaño NE – the oldest a ’92 Ford that was seized almost nine years ago in April 2010. Of those vehicles, the city says 232 need to be returned to their owners. The remaining 122 have been disclaimed by their owner or the city has already acquired ownership of them.

“We are essentially trying to be as exhaustive as possible trying to get these vehicles back,” said Andrew Coon, an assistant city attorney. “At the end of the day, if the vehicle is never picked up by someone, there is the possibility that it will be auctioned off. The last thing we want is for that to happen to a vehicle if it turns out somebody might actually want it back.”

Coon said the city has been making phone calls and sending letters to try to reach the owners.

So far 186 vehicles have been returned.

The city still has a lease on the lot, and Albuquerque Police Department’s Seizure Unit has been spending its days releasing the vehicles. The unit has also begun handling paperwork for license revocation for DWI suspects and storing bait cars for the police department, Coon said.

The lease for the seizure lot is up at the end of March, and its owner has asked the city to either leave the property entirely or to sign a two-year lease.

In late January, the mayor sent the City Council president a letter recommending extending the lease “due to the unique need for this property.”

The letter states that the two-year extension is necessary for APD to “properly coordinate the disbursement of vehicles and plan for relocation of remaining vehicles and units necessary, and/or review its options to purchase the property.”

The rent would be $18,658 a month for the first year and $19,404 a month for the second year. That comes out to $223,896 and $232,848 a year respectively.

The City Council will vote on it at an upcoming meeting.

Court rulings

The city’s vehicle seizure program began in 1992 and allowed police to confiscate a vehicle from people arrested on suspicion of a second or subsequent drunken driving offense or by anyone caught driving with a suspended or revoked license.

However, vehicles were also being seized from owners whose relatives, partners or acquaintances were arrested while driving their vehicle, sometimes without the owner’s permission. Some owners ended up losing their vehicles or paying hundreds of dollars to get them back.

Last July, a federal judge found parts of the Albuquerque program to be problematic and unconstitutional – including that the city made vehicle owners prove their innocence if someone else had been driving when it was seized and that the money from the program was paying the salaries of its employees.

And the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in another case in December that the program “completely contradicts” the intent of the New Mexico Forfeiture Act.

Esteban Aguilar, the city attorney, said the administration had begun looking at ways to change the vehicle seizure program last spring, by not seizing cars from innocent owners and mainly focusing on repeat offenders.

He said once the Court of Appeals decision came out, the city began dismantling the program completely.

“The forfeiture act was clear,” Aguilar said. It’s “the guiding legislation that really ended for municipalities across the state their abilities to use seizure as a tool – or the civil seizure program as a tool – to fight DWIs. We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board and look at exploring our other options for the way we’re handling DWI in this community.”

He said now if a drunken driver is arrested, the vehicle they were driving is towed to a private lot for public safety reasons. The owner can then go retrieve their vehicle there.

Gilbert Gallegos, an APD spokesman, said the department has increased its DWI saturation patrols in recent months as a way to combat drunken driving.

Law no longer enforced

In 2010, nearly 2,000 vehicles were seized from suspected drunken drivers, netting $1.81 million.

Those numbers dropped over the next several years, and by 2015 police seized a little over 1,000 vehicles, Gallegos said. In 2016 they seized 810 and in 2017 they seized 760.

Through 2018, 762 vehicles were seized, according to Gallegos.

Shortly after the Court of Appeals decision was handed down, Police Chief Michael Geier issued a special order stating: “Therefore, all sworn officers will temporarily suspend seizing vehicles for driving while intoxicated (whether or not there’s a prior conviction), driving on a revoked license, vice related seizures, firearm enhancement clause and drag racing.”

Gallegos said one vehicle had been seized on the day the order was issued and another had been seized in early January due to an oversight by the officer. The vehicle was returned to its owner when the mistake was realized. Gallegos said although the order does say to “temporarily suspend” vehicle seizures, “the program has been suspended, and there is no intention to resume vehicle seizures. There is no need for another special order.”

The vehicle seizure ordinance is still on the city’s books, but Aguilar said it will not be enforced.

“Whether the Council wants to repeal it or not is up to them,” he said. “In practice it’s unconstitutional we’re not going to enforce it.”

Pat Davis, a city councilor, said he doesn’t expect the ordinance will be appealed since it cannot be enforced anyway.

But, he added, he also doesn’t expect the council will amend it to comply with the court’s decision in order to revive the program – which he said has been seen as “policing for profit.”

“The court made it clear, the legislature made it clear,” Davis said “There’s some bipartisan agreement across the country and across the board that this pre-conviction seizure … just is not the right way to use our criminal justice system.”

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