Gotham on the Wagon

  • There was no public grousing when New York City police confiscated Francisco Almonte's car. Shortly after he slammed into a taxi last week, the 57-year-old Queens resident took a Breathalyzer test that showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19, almost twice the legal limit of 0.10. Then there was the matter of his eight previous arrests for drunk driving. The grumbling began later, when the N.Y.P.D. took possession of a 1988 Acura that belonged to librarian Pavel Grinberg. The Polish immigrant, 28, who had been swerving when police pulled him over, was legally drunk at a more modest 0.11 blood-alcohol level. But he had never before been arrested for drunk driving, and he was still relieved of his car.

    Renowned for his no-holds-barred approach to crime, Rudolph Giuliani became the nation's first mayor to order police to seize the cars of first-time drunk drivers. Correct that: even some of those who are not convicted may lose their wheels. Touting the O.J. Simpson case as a worthy model (surely another first), Giuliani explained that when an accused drunk driver is cleared in criminal court, the city may still use civil forfeiture statutes to take his car. This might be applied, he said, in cases in which "it's one of those acquittals in which the person was guilty, but there is just not quite enough evidence."

    If Giuliani's campaign succeeds, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S. may be inspired to toughen their policies. At least 20 states already allow officers to take cars from repeat drunk drivers. There is ample precedent for such seizures, but usually they involve habitual offenders or hardened criminals. Federal and state laws have long permitted authorities to seize and auction homes, cars and just about anything else that can be tied to certain drug, bootlegging, prostitution and other crimes. Just days after Giuliani's expansion of the idea, neighboring Nassau County implemented a similar law and crowed that five cars had been seized the first morning.

    Civil rights advocates shot back that especially for first-time offenders in cases in which no people and no property were harmed, the statute violates constitutional protection against overly harsh punishment. They also complain that cars are unfairly seized before the owners are found guilty, that the law sidesteps state law justifying seizures only after multiple convictions, and that entire working families could suffer if one member screws up.

    With the winds of controversy blowing, one would think city officials might lie low until the clouds pass. No way. Giuliani's parks commissioner, Henry J. Stern, last Wednesday turned his attention to the problem of free-roaming canines, warning "dog terrorists" that they face fines of as much as $1,000 for unleashed animals. Someone in city hall may have considered the idea of seizing such pets but thought better of it. After all, how much could a slightly used Yorkie fetch at a police auction?