SANTA FE, N.M. — The recent ruling declaring part of Albuquerque’s drunken driver vehicle seizure law unconstitutional will likely have little impact on Santa Fe’s program, according to city officials.
“Our ordinance is quite different from the Albuquerque ordinance,” said interim Santa Fe City Attorney Kelley Brennan earlier this week.
“Our ordinance provides very good due process protections,” said Santa Fe Assistant City Attorney Alfred Walker.
That is apparently the difference between the two statutes. In an eight-page ruling issued Nov. 22, State District Court Judge Clay Campbell said there was no mention in the Albuquerque ordinance that the owner of a vehicle that is seized can claim innocence if someone else was driving the vehicle and the owner was unaware that person would drive drunk.
“The ordinance violates due process and is thus unconstitutional,” said Campbell.
“Our ordinance does have specific protections for innocent owners,” said Walker. In Santa Fe, owners who loan their vehicles to someone who drove drunk “can sign an affidavit that says the owner did not know the person they loaned the car to had a DWI history,” he said.
But the caveat is that, if there is a second similar occurrence, “they are on notice this person has a DWI history,” said Walker.
The owner of the forfeited vehicle then has the right to a hearing before a city hearing officer, but the city has the affidavit to support the forfeiture. Even then, if that ruling goes against the vehicle owner, that is just the first step in a two-step process.
The matter would then go before a district court judge who makes the final call on the forfeiture, Walker said.
The Santa Fe ordinance was enacted at the beginning of 2007 with enforcement starting in 2009.
Every vehicle involved in a DWI in Santa Fe is towed and impounded; Walker estimated that 1,500 vehicles have been seized since the program began.
But not every vehicle seized is subject to forfeiture, such as vehicles being purchased on time through a bank loan, said Walker.
He estimated that about 200 vehicles have become city property.
Those are sold at auction, with the proceeds going to pay for the forfeiture program, and any remaining funds being used for DWI enforcement, prevention and prosecution.
In Albuquerque, the city attorney there said he does not expect that city’s program will be stopped, because the city is already following the judge’s ruling to make the program legal by returning vehicles to “innocent owners.”