There are a lot of negative consequences to being arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). In addition to the possibility of a criminal conviction, there are numerous civil penalties as well. In New York State, your license could be suspended or revoked for a period of months or even years. There are financial penalties from the DMV on top of any court fines, as well as increased insurance premiums. You may be subject to having to install an ignition interlock device in your car, requiring you to blow into a machine every 15 minutes while you’re driving in order to show that you haven’t been drinking. And in many jurisdictions, you could actually lose your car due to civil asset forfeiture laws.
The theory behind asset forfeiture laws is that if something is the instrumentality of a crime, you have forfeited your ownership of that item. For years, Nassau and Suffolk counties have been using asset forfeiture laws to take the cars of people charged with DWI, under the theory that the car is the instrumentality of the crime, and therefore is subject to forfeiture.
Nassau County has encapsulated their DWI forfeiture law under Nassau County Administrative Code § 8-7.0(g)(3), and Suffolk County’s law is under Suffolk County Code § 420-7. Those laws have always been essentially “strict liability”, meaning that all the county had to do was demonstrate that a person had been using their car while driving while intoxicated, and the car would be subject to forfeit. After a conviction in the related criminal case, there was nothing a defendant could do to retain their car. In Suffolk County, the law only applies to someone who had previously been convicted of a DWI, while Nassau County applies to first time offenders.
There was never any consideration about the value of the car, or whether it was fair for someone who was driving a $50,000 car to be subject to forfeiture the same as someone driving a $500 car. Until today.
Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Timbs v. Indiana, which is a case involving a drug dealer in Indiana who pled guilty to selling a small amount of heroin to an undercover police officer. In addition to probation, house arrest, and $1,200 in fines, the state also seized his $42,000 Land Rover, under the theory that it was used as an instrumentality of the crime.
The Supreme Court, for the first time, held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits “excessive fines”, applies to state laws regarding asset forfeiture. Up until today, that portion of the Eighth Amendment only applied to federal laws. The Supreme Court held that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution incorporated that portion of the Eighth Amendment to apply to state laws as well as federal laws.
So does that mean that states can no longer seize cars or other property from criminal defendants? No. The “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment has applied to federal laws for hundreds of years, and the federal government is still permitted to seize property under asset forfeiture laws. The difference is that now when a Judge is asked to forfeit a vehicle in a DWI case, they will have to consider whether that forfeiture is an “excessive fine” as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
The Supreme Court gave some guidance, pointing out that the $42,000 value of Mr. Timbs’ car was more than four times the maximum fine that the state court could have imposed. This will allow attorneys to argue that a defendant who is subject to having a relatively expensive car, as compared to the maximum fine for their offense, being forfeited is being treated unconstitutionally.
This is an issue which will have to play out in the trial courts and then the appellate courts, to determine what value of an automobile is simply too much to have that car forfeited. For now, it is a useful additional argument for an attorney to make when trying to protect a client’s rights.
The Law Office of Glenn Kurtzrock is available to assist you with your criminal case. We’re available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call right now for a free consultation at (631) 539-1640, or visit our website at http://www.kurtzrocklaw.com