The idea behind asset forfeiture is if someone was using a piece of property to carry out a crime, that piece of property is subject to seizure. For example, law enforcement could seize a car that was used to transport illegal drugs, sell it and keep the proceeds. I was behind a cop SUV not too long ago that had a bumper sticker on the back that read: “This car paid for with drug money.” The drug money was seized under asset forfeiture.
According to a New Mexico DWI lawyer’s website:
If arrested within the City of Albuquerque for a second or subsequent DWI or for driving while your license is revoked for a DWI, the vehicle you were driving may be subject to seizure and forfeiture. Forfeiture is a legal proceeding where the City of Albuquerque will file suit, seeking to have the vehicle declared a nuisance. If the City succeeds in that suit, Title to the vehicle will be given to the City and the vehicle will be sold at auction.
For Santa Fe County specifically:
Forfeiture of vehicles driven by a person whose license has been revoked for DWI or who is arrested for DWI and has two or more prior convictions.
One person who pushed for that ordinance was former Santa Fe County Sheriff Greg Solano, who resigned in 2010 after it was revealed that he was stealing department equipment and selling it on eBay. I guess it only makes sense, if you know anything about civil forfeiture laws and how they often target innocent people’s property. Police use civil forfeiture laws unjustly to steal property from people and profit from their confiscations.
Well, now that former sheriff is the target of a civil forfeiture case, and all of a sudden, he doesn’t like the law anymore. Remember, he was the one that pushed for these county ordinances in the first place. Here’s KRQE:
It was a little after 9 on a Monday night when Santa Fe Police got the call.
Sylvia Solano, 21, had just driven a white BMW convertible into a brick wall in a sleepy south side neighborhood.
Solano was taken to jail, arrested after blowing a .24 on a breathalyzer. The BMW was taken to the city impound lot.
Because it was Sylvia Solano’s second DWI, the city kept the wrecked car under the city’s DWI forfeiture law and moved to seize and sell it.
But the car isn’t Sylvia’s. It’s her dad Greg Solano’s car.
“On this night I hadn’t loaned it to her,” said Greg Solano. “I didn’t know she was taking it.”
It’s ironic he would have his car seized because as sheriff, Solano pushed for the county to get a DWI forfeiture ordinance of its own.
Because Solano says he didn’t give his daughter the keys nor know she was even drinking, he appealed to the city to be considered an innocent owner and get his car back.
The hearing officer denied him.
“Because I knew that she had a prior DWI [they said] they could take the car,” Solano said.
Under city rules, that administrative hearing officer only determines whether there was enough probable cause to make the DWI arrest. A car owner can claim to be an “innocent owner”, but are only considered as such if they didn’t know about the driver’s DWI past. Any other claims of being an innocent owner can only be determined in court.
Solano says the whole process felt “boilerplate” and that the outcome was predetermined. He’s now changed his tune on DWI vehicle seizure laws.
“This has changed my perspective on it a lot,” Solano said. “Not just because my car was taken but because the whole process just seemed so stacked against you and seemed so unfair.”
Solano says while he doesn’t regret that law’s effect keeping some drunk drivers off the road, he now believes a lot of innocent people are losing their cars because of the law.
So he’s enlisted the help of lawyer Diego Esquibel and is now fighting the forfeiture of his BMW in court. In filings with the court, Esquibel makes the claim the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional because it doesn’t give car owners due process, among other reasons.
Esquibel says as is, it’s simply unfair.
“You shouldn’t be expected to know five moves ahead, what’s going to happen with people,” Esquibel said.
The City of Santa Fe isn’t backing down. Assistant city attorney Alfred Walker tells KRQE News 13 he’s fully confident the city’s ordinance is constitutional and will hold up in court.
It’s not all that pleasant being a civilian, is it, Mr. Solano, when the police and the courts deem you guilty until you somehow prove your innocence to them? Of course it’s stacked against you. Of course it felt “boilerplate” and “predetermined.” That’s because it is. These laws are not written to protect or serve the community. They’re written to give city and county government officials free reign to steal your stuff, sell it off and buy toys with the proceeds. Or give themselves bonuses.