Restraining Civil Forfeiture In DUI Cases

As local governmental entities throughout Indiana attempt to garner additional sources of revenue, it is inevitably the area of traffic enforcement that fits the bill for many small communities lacking alternative sources of potential income.

However, unlike the past, even an uptick in fines and costs associated with more traffic offense citations and/or arrests has not often kept pace with the need for more revenue to serve the needs of these smaller communities throughout Indiana.

If past is prologue I believe an expected potential issue to be quashed in this state will be yet another reconsideration of manipulating civil forfeiture laws to allow for the seizure of vehicles allegedly used to commit the offense of drunk driving.

New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani became instrumental in implementing such policies dealing with drunk driving offenses committed within the confines of New York City several years ago. Guliani reasoned that it was not enough to merely go after those prosecuted for such offenses with harsh criminal penalties. Rather, Guliani whether for future political aspirations or moral certitude announced his get tough approach on dui would include the confiscation of vehicles used in the commission of dui offenses.

Those unfamiliar with the practice of impounding vehicles following a dui arrest were outraged to discover that not only were they in the crosshairs of criminal penalties but also the “civil” sanction of a potential loss of a motor vehicle. Countless appeals on numerous grounds had followed the practice in one form or another resting upon the government’s unlawful search and seizure of private property.

Despite vigorous challenges, appeals to the practice of vehicle impoundment remained unsuccessful so long as the practice constituted a valid public policy interest reasonably related to public safety. As a result, governmental authorities in New York City, armed with the green light of appellate review, have used the lower standard of evidence to prevail within a civil court (preponderance of evidence) to enrich the coffers of its local municipalities through the sale of privately seized vehicles during the course of dui prosecutions.

The practice has continued unabated. Despite public outcry and media attention devoted years ago to the practice of dui vehicle impoundment, the attention waned following the events of 9/11.

Riding the crest of a public more willing to submit to a greater infringement of civil liberties following 9/11, the alarm of expanded efforts to seize the private property of individuals accused of a crime has subsided.

Since Guliani’s measures to highlight a get tough approach on drunk driving, it has been left to local political entities and law enforcement as to whether to attempt such an impoundment policy elsewhere.

Former Marion County (Indianapolis) Prosecutor Scott Newman initially flirted with the idea of vehicle impoundment within dui cases. However, I suspect the broader sensibilities of the local community here in Indiana were not as readily willing to accept such a governmental practice in this part of the country.

I must say that in the years since Guliani’s measures, I have been heartened by the fact that political grandstanding has thus far not resulted in a wave of prosecutorial directives aimed at seizing the vehicles of motorists accused of drunk driving. Although specific localities outside of Indianapolis have also considered the practice, I remain convinced that the area of criminal forfeiture is best directed at the intended purpose of these laws originally intended to confiscate the unlawful proceeds of drug dealing activity.

Although formerly upheld within respective appellate court review, I believe it to be an unwarranted application of the civil forfeiture statutes to encompass the realm of drunk driving arrests as an intended target of the civil forfeiture law statutes. Creative application of such laws by politically motivated prosecutors to ensnare good working people otherwise productive to the workings of society cannot be abridged in the future as related to drunk driving prosecutions. Let us be ever vigilant to be mindful of the lessons learned by the policies handed down within New York City as a lesson we do not wish to befall the citizens of Indiana when and if needed sources of revenue continue to arise during the course of a faulty economy.