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RR’s DWI vehicle seizure law may head to voters

RIO RANCHO – The fight over a Rio Rancho DWI vehicle seizure ordinance continues.

Enchanted Hills resident Todd Hathorne has filed with the city clerk’s office a notice of intent to submit a petition to require a special election for voters to decide whether to remove the new ordinance. An opponent of the ordinance from the beginning, he declined to comment on the petition effort last week.

Hathorne has until April 13 to collect at least 5,747 signatures of Rio Rancho voters, city spokeswoman Annemarie Garcia said. She said city staff members have found no deadline for a special election, should Hathorne get enough signatures. The special election question could appear on the ballot at next year’s municipal general election.

“I think it is unfortunate that the governing body wants to take your vehicle without a conviction,” said City Councilor Mark Scott, an opponent of the ordinance.

The ordinance would allow the city to seize vehicles if a driver was drunk and charged with a third or subsequent DWI within the past 10 years. Second-time offenders could have their cars temporarily immobilized instead of seized.

The ordinance includes provisions to protect vehicle owners who didn’t know their car was being used by a drunken driver.

The city attorney would have to win a city administrative hearing and a district court hearing before the city received the vehicle title. Conviction of DWI in criminal court wouldn’t be necessary.

Any money from the sale of seized vehicles would go back into the seizure program or to DWI education, prevention and enforcement.

“As representatives, we do what we think is best for the community and if there are those out there who think it needs to be questioned, more power to them,” said City Councilor Shelby Smith, a proponent of the vehicle seizure ordinance. “That’s the beauty of our country.”

With New Mexico the second most dangerous state with regard to DWIs and the state Legislature unable to come up with a solution, Smith said, he’d like the ordinance to stay. However, he said if voters decide otherwise, “so be it.”

Rio Rancho Police have supported the ordinance. “Our position is pretty simple: The police department would be opposed to any activity that could potentially harm public safety,” said police Lt. Paul Rogers II.

Supporters of the ordinance said it would decrease drunken driving and save lives. Detractors said it would violate constitutional rights, be ineffective and expensive, and lead to lawsuits against the city.

According to the Rio Rancho city charter, qualified voters can require the governing body to reconsider almost any ordinance, said Assistant City Manager Peter Wells in an email to governing body members.

To do so, the city clerk must receive a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the number of voters registered during the most recent city election. The petition must be filed no more than 60 days after approval of the ordinance.

The governing body gave final approval to the DWI vehicle seizure ordinance on a 4-1 vote Feb. 11 and Hathorne received verification of his petition form from the city clerk March 16, Wells wrote.

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