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City puts brakes on DWI vehicle forfeiture program

December 14, 2018

Santa Fe will suspend its DWI vehicle forfeiture program in the wake of a state Court of Appeals ruling that confirmed a similar civil forfeiture ordinance in Albuquerque is not allowed under state law.

The capital city’s forfeiture ordinance provides Santa Fe police the authority to seize a vehicle from a person “who is arrested for a DWI offense,” even if it is a first offense.

The state Legislature, however, abolished the practice of civil forfeiture in 2015. The Court of Appeals found state law pre-empts local civil forfeiture ordinances.

City Attorney Erin McSherry, referring to the Albuquerque ruling, said she would recommend a moratorium on the Santa Fe ordinance Wednesday night. On Thursday, the city announced the moratorium would be in place “until further notice.”

A city spokesman said impounded vehicles that have not yet been officially forfeited will be returned. Owners of those vehicles will have to show their registration, provide proof of insurance and pay a towing fee.

Forfeitures that were finalized before the Dec. 5 Court of Appeals decision, however, “still stand,” spokesman Matt Ross said.

The city seized 473 vehicles in 2017, the most recent year for which full data is available. That marked a downturn from prior years and the fourth consecutive year in which the city’s total seizures decreased, following a high of 630 in 2013.

Of the 473 vehicles seized last year, the city successfully auctioned 145 of them. In 37 percent of cases, or 176, the city classified the vehicle as “released/innocent owner.”

In 98 cases, the owner of the vehicle opted to instead pay for the installation of an ignition interlock device — an option available only to first- and second-time offenders.

McSherry also has initiated a suspension of the city’s controversial panhandling ordinance, saying last month that her office was reviewing the constitutionality of Santa Fe’s strict provisions on when and where individuals can solicit charity.

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