Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Albuquerque police of illegally seizing vehicles from people accused of drunken driving and selling them to pad the city budget.
The city proceeds with seizure even when the driver hasn’t been convicted and even if the person doesn’t actually own the car, according to the suit.
“For nearly a decade, APD has engaged in a pattern and practice of unconstitutionally seizing, forfeiting and selling vehicles whose owners – like the named Plaintiffs – were not arrested, much less convicted of a crime and using the profit to increase its budget,” the 31-page complaint alleges.
City Attorney David Tourek said he is “very confident” the city’s DWI forfeiture ordinance is constitutional. It includes provisions to protect “innocent owners” who lent their car to someone else who ended up arrested for driving while intoxicated, he said.
Furthermore, the program improves public safety, Tourek said.
“The DWI ordinance, we believe, is saving lives because drunk drivers are not getting their cars back,” he said in an interview.
The suit was filed on behalf of Dianne Boles-Scott, Jessica Bailey, Jennifer Mocho, Paula Montoya, Martha Archuleta, Hayman Nurseries LLC, Arthur Hayman, On Time Finance Inc. and Joe Page.
The plaintiffs all had vehicles seized by the city. None of them was driving, though, according to the suit.
Instead, they generally fall under the term “innocent owners” – people who owned the car but didn’t know someone else would drive it drunk, according to the suit.
Their attorneys are Colin Hunter, Diego Esquibel, Paul Kennedy and Justine Fox-Young.
Named as defendants are the city of Albuquerque; its hearing officer, Stanley Harada; and police Lt. Les Brown.
The lawsuit describes APD’s vehicle-seizure program as one of the most punitive in the country. It says the city unconstitutionally coerces innocent owners into paying exorbitant fines or risk losing their vehicle permanently.
“The owner does not have to be arrested, much less convicted, of a crime to have his or her property taken,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit says that proceeds from the DWI forfeiture program are used to pay for about $487,000 in annual employee salaries and for equipment, in addition to $500,000 to buy police vehicles every two years.
In November, state District Judge Clay Campbell found the forfeiture ordinance unconstitutional because it didn’t provide a meaningful appeals process that would allow innocent owners to get their cars back. But the state Supreme Court later issued an order that said Campbell’s ruling applied only to the vehicle in that particular case heard by Campbell.
Consequently, the city has continued with the forfeiture program.
“I am very confident that our DWI forfeiture ordinance is constitutional,” Tourek said Tuesday. “An innocent owner has an avenue to make their argument for a timely release of the vehicle that was seized.”