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Automobile confiscation is bad policy

By Scott Tibbs, March 8, 1999

New York City has recently instituted a law that allows the NYC police department to confiscate the vehicles of drunk drivers on the spot. The law outrages civil libertarians, because it violates a person's Fifth Amendment right not to be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

In principle, the idea of taking away the automobile of a drunk driver is good policy. Driving an automobile is a privilege, not a right, and when someone endangers the lives and property of other people by driving under the influence of a controlled substance that privilege should be taken away. When a drunk driver is behind the wheel, an automobile becomes a deadly weapon, and government has every right to confiscate that weapon after due process has taken its course. But what is objectionable about this law is not the confiscation itself, but the fact that the confiscation happens without a trial.

Advocates of the new seizure law have used statistics that first time offenders kill most people killed by drunk drivers. On CNBC's "Hardball" New York Mayor Rudy Guliani said that this figure is close to 80%. But even assuming this is true, is it ample justification for violation of someone's Fifth Amendment rights?

Conservatives have used some strange logic in defending this law. On CNN's "Crossfire", Republican strategist Ralph Reed defended the law by stating that if liberals are willing to violate law-abiding citizens' Second Amendment rights with new gun control laws, they should support confiscation of automobiles. In addition to being a red herring, Reed's argument lacks consistent logic. Instead of defending the law itself, Reed seems to be saying that if you support one law that violates a person's Constitutional rights, you should support another. The logic in this argument escapes me. A better argument would be that if you oppose one law that violates a person's constitutional rights, you should oppose all laws that violate a person's Constitutional rights. By supporting the automobile confiscation law, Reed is every bit as inconsistent as the gun control advocates he criticized on "Crossfire".

Proponents of this law, including Reed, have used the argument that drunk drivers are killing "our children". But this appeal to emotion is not a good way to support this law. Liberals are constantly invoking "the children" as a means of supporting policies that take away freedom, from gun control laws to opposition to tax cuts. Instead of surrendering to the "our children" demagoguery by using it themselves, conservatives should take a stand for freedom, explaining why their ideas are good public policy without resorting to emotionalism.

Another problem with this law is that it is a subtle tax increase. It is one thing to revoke someone's driver's license for driving under the influence. But taking away someone's property without due process is wrong. This NYC law allows the government to confiscate the wealth of citizens, providing the ability to sell the confiscated vehicles to fill the city's coffers. As someone noted at a debate forum that I visit, this would fall hardest on the poor and the middle class, who can hardly afford to spend thousands of dollars on another automobile if one is confiscated by government.

Being tough on crime is a good thing. However, in our desire to be tough on crime, we must not sacrifice the bill of rights. We all desire security from crime, but freedom is more important. A wise person once said that those who would give up freedom for security deserve neither freedom nor security.