Garden State DWI News: Could Government Seizure of Vehicles in Adjoining States Portend Jersey’s Future?

Most every motorist understands intuitively that drinking while intoxicated (DWI) can be a costly undertaking, not only in terms of post-conviction fines and increased insurance premiums down the road, but also in the unfortunate event of a crash causing injury or death. Yet, regardless of the disincentives to drink and drive, hundreds of Garden State drivers are arrested every month for driving under the influence of either alcohol or drugs.

Traffic safety experts and law enforcement agencies, along with lawmakers understand the continuing problem with DWI and DUI offenders, which sometimes results in heavy-handed or extreme measures to achieve certain ends. As New Jersey drunken driving defense lawyers, our job is to help those individuals who believe that they have been unjustly accused of a DWI, drug DUI or other related offense. We do see, from time to time, some rather worrisome changes in the way that certain locales treat DWI offenders, as well as those convicted of drunk driving.

Take, for instance, the ongoing efforts in one of our neighboring states to rein in intoxicated drivers. According to a news article we recently ran into, drivers arrested and charged with driving under the influence on a majority of Long Island may be looking forward to having their vehicles seized, impounded and possibly even sold off depending on events in the courtroom.

Based on reports, Nassau County police have joined authorities in the large and neighboring Suffolk County in seizing the vehicles of accused drunk drivers and then holding that property as those defendants’ DWI cases make their way through the court system. Local authorities have stated that the policy of taking a drunk driver’s vehicle is meant to keep dangerous motorists off the road. It should be noted that this is not a new idea, since Suffolk County has been following this kind of policy since 1999.

If this type of action against a defendant sounds vaguely familiar, it wouldn’t surprise the folks in that part of Long Island. In fact, for nearly a decade, Nassau County has been selling drunk drivers’ vehicles at auction (or, in the case of leased vehicles, though settlements with financial institutions or leasing companies who hold title to those vehicles), but only after a conviction has been reached.

For Nassau County, the proceeds from those liquidations go into the county’s general fund, while any forfeiture monies are earmarked for the local police department. This is a big change from the old way of handling the vehicles belonging to accused intoxicated drivers — in the past, the county typically returned the vehicle to the motorist following his or her arrest. But because of the often extended time between an arrest and subsequent trial, the lease or financing agreement often had expired, which usually prevented the county from reaching a monetary settlement.

There are concerns about the fairness of such a policy, however. For one, defendants are placed in a position of making a legal decision based on the potential forfeiture of their vehicles; of course, the difference between New Jersey and New York is that DWI is a civil offense in the Garden State; on Long Island, first-time DWI offenses amount to a misdemeanor, which still requires one to mount a criminal defense. More to the point, however, some drivers could be risking the loss of a $3,000 vehicle, versus some defendants who may be looking at a loss in the tens of thousands of dollars. Most people find this potential disparity an equal punishment for the same crime.

Regardless of the inequity of the situation, the New York State Court of Appeals struck down Nassau County’s vehicle seizure law back in 2003 on completely different grounds; that it failed to provide motorists with prompt hearings. Recent changes to the county’s seizure policy reportedly ensures that DWI-DUI hearings are held within 15 days of an arrest.

Nassau seizing vehicles after DWI arrests, Newsday.com, September 10, 2014
Nassau seizing vehicles after DWI arrests, NJHerald.com, September 11, 2014