- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Since it first roared down a winding country road, the automobile has served as a symbol of freedom. But from the discarded 1970s-era 55-mile-an-hour speed limit to today’s use of photo traffic enforcement, government efforts to entrap motorists have been stepped up dramatically over the years. Now, the police are doing more than just handing out tickets for moving violations; they are actually confiscating cars. This must end.

While law-enforcement agencies across the country have various auto-seizure programs, Virginia’s is particularly iron-fisted. According to section 46.2-867 of the Virginia code, if a driver convicted of racing, “the vehicle shall be seized and disposed of.” For example, two guys who put the pedal to the metal to show off at a stoplight could lose their muscle cars. Their behavior is obviously obnoxious and perhaps reckless — depending on the speed — but taking the vehicles is unquestionably out of proportion to the offense. Consider that the minimum fines are $2,000 for negligent manslaughter and only $4,000 for reckless manslaughter, yet one can lose an expensive car for allegedly racing even when no one is hurt — and rarely is anyone hurt in these cases. According to FBI crime statistics, there were 207,000 property crimes, 18,842 auto thefts, 11,945 assaults, 6,860 burglaries, 1,770 rapes and 364 murders in Virginia in 2001. In the whole nation that year, there were only 135 auto deaths blamed on racing, which works out to less than three per state. These numbers should make it obvious that police attention would be better focused on the numerous crimes that are far more serious and widespread.

There are many problems with auto seizures for supposed racing. For one, it is a vague charge, and we have heard reliable accounts of people getting stopped for racing when they had accelerated to get around drunk or otherwise dangerous drivers. Seizures involve double jeopardy, as a busted motorist goes to court, receives sanctions on his license and pays fines for the same infraction for which separate proceedings are instigated to seize his wheels. Utilizing legalistic trickery, prosecutors argue that there is no double jeopardy because there are two separate proceedings against two separate entities: a criminal case against the alleged racer, and the civil case for seizure against the car. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1931 that in a proceeding for property forfeiture, “It is the property which is proceeded against, and, by resort to a legal fiction, held guilty and condemned as though it were conscious instead of inanimate and insentient.” We suppose the bizarre logic is that people don’t race cars, cars do.

The law is skewed toward ensuring that cars are collected. Because the statute mandates seizure, judges don’t have any room to find someone guilty but allow him to keep his car if his honor deems the incident to be minor. In the civil case for seizure, the burden of proof is also the low standard requiring only a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. Since 1991, the state of Virginia has seized 4,594 cars for a variety of offenses. This involves a ton of money, and in most cases, local and state law-enforcement agencies get to keep about 80 percent of the proceeds. With budgets squeezed, there is an obvious incentive to nab as many cars as possible. This isn’t our idea of crime-fighting.

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