9/10/2009 1:04:26 PM

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(White Plains, NY) ~  Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Bill Ryan (D, I,WFP-White Plains), joined by Legislator Peter Harckham (D, I, WFP-Katonah), the author of this landmark legislation and the Board’s Committees on Legislation Chairman William Burton (D,I,WFP-Ossining) and Public Safety Chairman Legislator Vito Pinto (D,WFP-Tuckahoe) announced, today, the movement towards passage of historic legislation that would require the forfeiture of vehicles for those convicted of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or while engaged in unlawful speed contests or drag races throughout Westchester County. “We have commitments from enough legislators to report this legislation  out of committee and pass it on the floor of the full Board at our next meeting,” said Chairman Ryan.  “I want to congratulate Legislators Harckham, Burton and Pinto on this victory, which will save thousands of lives in the future. The prospect of forfeiting one’s car, often an expensive material possession, will cause people to think twice before getting drunk and getting behind the wheel.”  Having worked for over a year in a bipartisan effort, this legislation comes for a vote on the heels on the tragic deaths of members of the Bastardi and Schuler families on the Taconic State Parkway in July, along with recent spark in DWI/DUI-related accidents within the county. 

Ryan and legislators were joined by Alonzo West of the Westchester Correction Officers Benevolent Association, Michael Hagan of the Westchester County Police Benevolent Association, Robert Buckley of the Westchester County Correction Superior Officers Association and Helene Hodapp of the Westchester County Probation Officers Association, all of which have been vocal in their support of the legislation. “Law enforcement personnel need every tool at their disposal to combat the ever-growing scourge of drinking and driving offenses,” said Helene Hodapp of the Westchester County Probation Officers Association.  “The potential for vehicle forfeiture, in such cases, may provide a deterrent to those who otherwise might take a chance to drive under those circumstances and/or prevent those for whom deterrence is not meaningful from placing our communities at continued risk.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, civil forfeiture of motor vehicles laws serve as a deterrent to recidivism may reduce first-time offenses and will send a stern message that driving while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and drag racing will not be tolerated in Westchester County.  “The passage of the bill is a major victory for Westchester County and one that will resonate throughout the region, as counties and municipalities aggressively pursue drunk drivers in an effort to make their streets safer," said Legislator Harckham.  “It’s also important for residents to realize that if you’re caught driving drunk, you risk taking a life or losing your own. The County Board has found that while larger fines, longer license suspensions, and increased jail sentences may deter some offenders, a stronger deterrent is necessary to protect the public.”

“Having seen, first hand, the death and destruction that is a result of DWI accidents, I welcome legislation that would make people think twice before they drink and drive,” said Michael Hagan, president of the Westchester County Police Benevolent Association.  “If the potential for devastation and the legal consequences of drinking and driving doesn’t get their attention, perhaps the possibility of losing their vehicle will.”  In an effort to combat drunk driving and reduce the number of driving while intoxicated (“DWI”) and driving under the influence (“DUI”)-related accidents and fatalities, the proposed legislation would call for Westchester County law enforcement to begin confiscating the vehicles of intoxicated drivers arrested for DWI or DUI.  When an individual is arrested for DWI or DUI, the County would apply civil forfeiture proceedings against the vehicle, which is considered the instrument of a crime, and the car is immediately impounded.  “Our committees have worked together in a bipartisan effort for over a year and have added several constitutional protections for due process,” said Legislator Burton.  “This bill has been modeled after legislation that is in place in Nassau and Suffolk counties, both have proven to be effective in those localities.”  Currently, twenty states permit the confiscation of vehicles for DWI or DUI offenses, with New York City, Nassau and Suffolk counties, specifically within New York State, with most being second offenses or more.

Details of the legislation include:

  • Contains an “innocent owner” affirmative defense, which is intended to stop forfeiture of a vehicle when the owner did not have actual knowledge that the vehicle would be used in violation
  • Authorizes the County Attorney to commence civil actions for forfeiture of vehicles when operated by a person who is under the influence of alcohol or drugs or found to be participating in drag racing and is arrested by any Westchester County police officers on county roads
  • Contains a provision which expressly permit lessors and lien holders of vehicles to recover such vehicles if seized by the county
  • Contains a “hardship relief” provision, allowing relief from forfeiture, in cases in which the defendant can establish that such forfeiture would impose substantial and unwarranted burdens on the defendant’s ability to travel to employment, school or medical treatment.  Such hardship relief could be subject to terms and conditions, including installation of an ignition interlock device in the vehicle. 

Within the last four years, Westchester County has seen a steady increase in DWI or DUI arrests.  According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, adult arrests in Westchester County for felony and misdemeanor offenses rose from 2,337 in 2002 to 2,650 in 2007.  The Westchester County Department of Probation reports that DWI and DUI cases represent the largest percentage of their total cases – 23 percent.  Additionally, 17,000 people nationally die each year in alcohol-related accidents, with 80 percent of which involve recidivist drunk drivers.  “Over eighty percent of DWI and DUI arrests are first-time offenders and, therefore, forfeiture of their vehicles will severely cut down on this danger," states Legislator Pinto.  “Drunk driving is a deadly and serious crime.  This legislation sends a clear message to repeat offenders – driving drunk will not be tolerated in Westchester County.”

“As much as we hope that education and public awareness will result in an end to DWI offenses, it has not solved the problem.  We continue to read and hear about atrocities on our highways involving innocent victims of DWI.  My hope is that this legislative initiative will add some additional teeth to our existing DWI laws.”

“My investigations confirm our committee’s findings that, because the county still suffers from DWIs, the county needs direct measures to prevent irresponsible actions by irresponsible drunken drivers from harming innocent drivers and passengers.”

“I am supporting this law because of the overwhelming evidence that we continue to have a drunken driving problem here in Westchester and the existing laws simply are not enough.  As a sponsor of the Social Host law, I believe this DWI forfeiture legislation being proposed goes hand-in-hand.  Those that drink and drive are turning their cars into dangerous weapons.   As a legislator, I want to be part of this effort to provide an additional penalty to combat drunk driving.”

“The recent tragedy on the Taconic State Parkway where eight people were killed – three of them being Yonkers residents – further underscores the toll DWI takes on our society and I fully support the proposed DWI vehicle forfeiture law as a deterrent.”