L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 100, November 27, 2000
Truck Seizure Goes Too Far
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Karl Dir of Henderson, Nev. doesn't make a very attractive champion in the battle for property rights.
With his unruly black hair and beard, he's not exactly a suit-and-tie kind of guy. More importantly, back in April of 1999, Dir was driving home from a drinking bout when he says he reached down for a clipboard on the floor of his truck cab. What's undisputed is that he then lost control of his truck and slammed it into the mobile home of neighbor Harold Combs of Mona Lane, who was injured in his bed by falling debris.
Police reports and court findings reveal Mr. Dir didn't heap glory on himself, even then. Rather than offering assistance to the injured Mr. Combs, Dir fled the scene, returning with his father only 20 minutes later.
At that point, Karl Dir was arrested on felony charges including DUI, battery with a deadly weapon, and leaving the scene. His truck was towed away.
But the next day, prosecutors opted not to pursue the felony charges, apparently based in part on the fact that Dir's last DUI arrest had been seven years earlier, in Oregon.
Pleading guilty to the misdemeanors, Dir lost his Nevada driver's license for a year and was fined $500. He's not disputing those penalties. What he wants is his truck back.
Henderson authorities -- who have kept the truck for a year and a half, even as Dir and his father, William, continued to make their truck payments -- argue that in a civil asset forfeiture the city "is not required to plead or prove that a (suspect) has been charged with or convicted of any criminal offense."
But that may be wrong on its face, in addition to being an insidious doctrine. State law would appear to allow seizure of a motor vehicle or "conveyance" -- quite correctly -- only if it was used in the commission of a felony, such as murder and robbery.
Perhaps felony charges should have been pursued against Dir. But they weren't, and if the Henderson City Attorney has a problem with that, his objection lies with someone else entirely.
Police in neighboring Las Vegas say they do not permanently seize the vehicles of drunk driving suspects. Instead, the report that such measures are reserved for cases of alleged narcotics trafficking, or getaway vehicles in felony robberies.
New York City started seizing the cars of all drunken driving suspects two years ago -- without waiting for convictions -- but that's unconstitutional. Such measures are being fought in the courts both in New York and in Oakland, Calif. -- in the latter case, by the American Civil Liberties Union.
With good reason. What ever happened to "innocent until proven guilty," let alone "letting the punishment fit the crime"? For many in the working class, losing the family car means losing the ability even to earn a living.
Karl and William Dir have even refused an offer from the City of Henderson to give them back their truck in exchange for a towing fee, arguing that they're taking their stand on principle.
Pardon me, but once the matter in dispute is reduced to that small a sum, I'd say the Dirs would be wise to accept the offer. If you're arrested for drunken driving and your vehicle has been in a collision, one would normally expect that vehicle to be towed away, and to absorb the cost of that towing.
Was the vehicle in good enough shape that it could have been safely driven away by co-owner William Dir -- Karl's father -- rather than being towed? Might it have been needed in state custody the next day for further forensic evidence-gathering? Surely these are judgment calls best left to the officers at the scene. The cops clearly believed at the time they were dealing with felony offenses; it was reasonable to assume the truck might have sustained some serious damage; the tow-truck driver came out late at night and deserves his fee.
The Dirs should pay the towing charge. But as for the notion that their vehicle should be "forfeited" to the government based on the misdemeanor charges which eventually resulted: That's going too far.
In law and justice, we have to be careful of the precedents we set. What would be next? Shall the government seize the home of a property owner who commits a misdemeanor by carelessly dispatching some "threatened" rat or lizard or bug with his lawn mower?
Property rights are too vital an underpinning of our heritage of freedom to allow them to be eroded any further. I have no sympathy for drunks who crash into people's homes. Karl Dir's behavior was not potentially deadly; a repetition might result in consequences far more serious.
But in a day and age when the number of "laws" is multiplying so quickly that it's hard to get to work in the morning without breaking some, it's all the more important to set limits on such a potentially devastating government power.