One of the more controversial aspects of New York City’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws is car forfeiture. This is when the police seize your vehicle after you’re arrested for a DWI. Police can now also seize your car after an arrest for reckless driving.
Once the police have impounded your car, they can start civil forfeiture proceedings against you, regardless of whether or not you owned the car that you were driving at the time.
It’s important to understand that a civil forfeiture is tried separately from your DWI. Since the forfeiture is a civil case, there’s also a lower standard of proof than there is for your DWI, which is a criminal case. This means that it’s possible for you to be found not guilty of your DWI, but still lose your civil forfeiture case and therefore, your car.
There are several common defenses used in civil forfeiture cases. If it wasn’t the owner of the car who was driving it, then they can use that as their defense, claiming that they didn’t know the person was driving their car while intoxicated. The county needs to provide timely notice to the driver and the owner of the car that it plans to seize the car, and it needs to serve both the owner and driver within 120 days. If either of these conditions are not met, an attorney could use a defense of inadequate notice or an untimely filing. Finally, the defendant could claim that they will experience an undue hardship, either for their family, financially or both, if their car is seized.
During the case of Krimstock v. Kelly, the 2nd Circuit Court found certain aspects of the civil forfeiture laws unconstitutional, specifically how they allow the government to seize and retain the vehicles of drivers arrested for DWI without requiring probable cause for a vehicle seizure or retention. Since the civil forfeiture cases could take months or years, the government was keeping cars for a significant length of time even when drivers eventually won their civil cases.
That case led to new rules regarding civil forfeiture, and drivers now must receive an early opportunity to a hearing where they can test the probable cause regarding the seizure of their vehicle. If there wasn’t probable cause for the vehicle seizure, the police department must release the vehicle to the driver while the criminal and civil cases take place.
If the police have your car after your DWI case is disposed, then you can demand its release at the police impound lot. You must show the police proof that you own the car, a certificate of disposition for your DWI case and a letter, signed by the district attorney on your case, that consents to the release of your car. The police department can still bring a civil forfeiture case against you after they release your car to you, but they must do so within a set period of time.
Keep in mind that for a civil forfeiture, the value of your car doesn’t matter. Although the maximum fine for a driver’s first DWI offense is $1,000, the police could still seize a vehicle worth $25,000, or $50,000 or $100,000. If you lose your car through a civil forfeiture and you’re still making payments or it’s a lease, you’ll need to continue making payments on it even though you no longer have the car.
The harsh civil forfeiture laws in New York City make it very possible that you can end up losing your car even for a first DWI offense. That’s why hiring an attorney is a smart move when you’re being charged with DWI. An attorney has a vast knowledge of DWI and civil forfeiture laws, and will give you the best chance at a strong defense and getting your car back.