NYCLU Questions Mayor's Authority to Seize Property

February 22, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
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Monday, February 22, 1999

NEW YORK–Mayor Giuliani’s new initiative to seize cars used by people suspected of driving under the influence is wrong, excessive and unfair.

The New York Civil Liberties Union believes that drunk driving is a serious crime and we have never objected to the police department’s legitimate efforts to enforce the law. But under the mayor’s plan, police officers now have the authority to seize a person’s car, sell it and funnel the proceeds to the city — even if the driver turns out to be innocent.

The police should not be in the business of acting as judge, jury and used car dealer, which is what happens when they start seizing cars based on nothing more than suspicion. Indeed, one leading constitutional scholar has called this nothing less than a “license to steal.”

The mayor’s plan says more about his efforts to establish an authoritarian hold on New York City than on his efforts to end drunk driving. Traditionally, states that seize cars under drunk driving laws do so after the second or third offense, or invoke the seizure in conjunction with more serious crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter. But under this initiative, New Yorkers will have the dubious privilege of being the first to have their property seized and sold without ever being convicted, regardless of the circumstances of the arrest or of the reliability of the evidence.

The Mayor and the Police Commissioner have insisted that their actions are constitutional. Then again, they said the same thing in 14 out of the last 16 First Amendment cases the NYCLU has won against the city, either in part or in full.

Sadly, we cannot trust Mayor Giuliani when he says the city is on the right side of the law. Litigation against this new mayoral initiative is inevitable and the NYCLU will most likely be involved, either as a direct representative of an individual or as a friend-of-the-court in a private lawsuit.

Finally, we believe that the Mayor’s decision to implement this plan — only 18 days after the police shooting of Amadou Diallo — is questionable and unwise. Right now, the city is reeling from the tragic shooting death that resulted from the police encounter with Mr. Diallo. Tensions are understandably high between some New Yorkers and some police officers, and many minority residents already feel that they are being stopped and questioned disproportionately by the police.

Couldn’t city officials at least wait a decent interval of at least 30 days before introducing an aggressive new initiative that will once again pit police officers against New Yorkers?

A recent national ACLU advertisement on police confiscation of drug assets can be read at: /features/nytimesad121198.html

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