July 12, 2007

Vehicle Forfeiture

Over the past few years, Niagara County has contemplated a "vehicle forfeiture" law. Under what was recommended by Dick DeWitt, an individual convicted of DWI would lose his vehicle on the first offense. Although I believe a first offense forfeiture is too harsh, I do believe that the county should look at this issue further.

Researching the issue, I found many communities that have implemented forfeiture laws. A Portland, Oregon, ordinance requires forfeiture of vehicles of offenders arrested for driving with a license suspended as a result of drunk driving. The forfeiture ordinance also applies to those arrested as habitual offenders who have committed three or more serious traffic offenses, at least one of which was driving while intoxicated. The flexibility included in some forfeiture ordinances results in a de facto combination vehicle impoundment/forfeiture law.

Several states have legislation allowing vehicle forfeiture, but most rarely use it. In many jurisdictions, forfeiture is a discretionary sanction imposed by the courts (NTSB 2000). There are a few notable exceptions of well-utilized programs, including:

Bend, Oregon, seizes vehicles of repeat offenders and of vehicles owned by others if they knowingly allowed the driver to use the vehicle.

In Ohio, laws allow forfeiture for the fourth DWI, third DWS, or the first offense of driving an immobilized or plateimpounded vehicle within five years. If forfeiture occurs, the offender cannot register or title any vehicle in his or her name for five years

The state of Michigan allows forfeiture for crimes ranging from a second DWI in seven years to felony DWI causing death or injury.

New York City initiated a first offender vehicle forfeiture ordinance in February 1999; the city seized 1,458 cars in the first year of operation.

Deschutes County, Oregon, has an ordinance allowing drivers to regain their vehicle if they pay an administrative fee and sign an agreement forfeiting their rights to the vehicle on a future arrest for DWI or driving while suspended.

Anchorage, Alaska, has an impoundment/forfeiture ordinance that seeks 30 days impoundment for a first offense and forfeiture for a second or subsequent offense.

Santa Barbara, California, also has an impoundment/forfeiture ordinance for unlicensed drivers that started January 1, 1995.

A 2000 study found after New York City began a vehicle forfeiture program for first time offenders, DWI arrests declined by 22 percent and traffic crashes declined by 14 percent from the previous year.

A study of a forfeiture program in Portland, Oregon, found offenders whose vehicles were seized re-offended only half as often as those whose vehicles were not seized. Over a four-year period, the recidivism rate for offenders whose cars were seized was only four percent.

Police officers in Santa Barbara, the sheriff’s department in Deschutes County and Anchorage city officials all consider their impoundment/forfeiture programs to be effective.

If our judges are going to continue to let people slide through the courts with a slap on the wrist, the problem is only going to get worse. And if anyone out there says DWI is a "victimless crime", I'd encourage you to go to a victim's impact group. You'll change your mind. Quickly.

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