New York City's Car Siezure Policy Merits Consideration

26 February 1999

By Stentor Danielson

Beginning this week, police in New York City were authorized to seize the cars of motorists arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), three vehicles have felt the grip of the new policy, the first of its kind in the nation. Though it's too early for actual statistical evidence, I am certain that this crackdown is the right way to go.

I have (knock on wood) no experience with actual drunk drivers, but I do have plenty of experience with bad and reckless drivers. I've been in a car whose driver decided to cut off the person in the exit lane of the highway at the last possible instant, causing him to enter the cloverleaf at about 70 miles per hour and earning him several more-than-well-earned displays of "the finger" from the driver he cut off.

And I'm not much safer, though, because of excessive hesitancy rather than an overflow of adrenaline. Even I am afraid to drive with me. I failed the driver's test twice because I am the world's most inept parallel parker (though I like to blame that on the minivan I have to drive), but since the state of Pennsylvania decided that a three-point turn is equivalent to parallel parking, I finally have my license. So with sober idiots like me out on the roads, do we really need drunk idiots, too? And what if one of us sober idiots gets drunk? We should remind ourselves that a car is a big, dangerous machine, and that being allowed to drive one is truly a privilege, not a right.

But DWI programs already seize licenses. If they take your license, you're not allowed to drive. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that you can't. You don't need to swipe a dining hall-style barcode on your license to be able to start your car. And there aren't police checkpoints every few miles with x-ray scopes checking drivers' back pockets for licenses. If the convict resolves to drive carefully, he can escape that angle of the sentence fairly easily. And while he would then not be dangerous, he would not be punished, either. But, without a car, it would be physically impossible to drive. That means the drunk driver would be feeling the punishment of impaired mobility, as well as being unable to hurt others.

But don't construe this as a reservationless approval of New York City's new policy. For one thing, the seizures are made as part of a separate civil hearing after the criminal case. Since the burden of proof in a civil case is not as heavy, a person could potentially be acquitted and still lose his or her car. It doesn't take a genius to see that this is silly. The court's ruling should be the final word on whether the person committed the crime. The point of a trial is, after all, to determine the truth. The court shows my roommate is always watching suggest that this is not always so in practice, but that's another commentary in itself. I recommend that the seizure of the car be made part of the sentencing of a convicted drunk driver. If he did it, take his car. If he didn't, let it go.

As can be expected in our society, there are groups out there who resist the implementation of this policy. As I understand it, their main argument is that the family - the sober wife and kids who were at home at the time - will get penalized for the drunk driver's stupidity and deprived of the family vehicle. In answer to that, let me first point out that New York City - being, as its name suggests, a city - has a well-developed public transportation system. While I can't vouch for its quality (and I hope not to ever be able to), it does exist. And if for some reason the subway is not adequate to maintain the rest of the family's livelihood, perhaps a petition system could be introduced. Under this policy, a family and/or the defendant himself could petition the judge to have car seizure swapped for prison time. Prison time would also keep the convicted drunk driver off the street, which is the point of car seizure.

Though I have my reservations about the particulars of New York's new policy, I think that it's high time such a plan was put into effect. Hopefully, the data that New York will accumulate on the success of car seizure will convince other cities to implement similar policies. They say the nation's highways are less safe than her airways. Let's try and make a car crash as big -- and rare -- a story as an airplane crash. Cracking down on drunk drivers is a good first step.

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