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Another New York Traffic Jam

Appeals court orders return of thousands of vehicles impounded by police in drunk-driving and other cases.

March 21, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Swasnand Bissoondial stood in line at the College Point Auto Pound in Queens, holding an envelope full of documents as part of the process of getting back his 1996 Nissan Infiniti -- a car he hasn't seen in four years and is still buying.

His auto was one of thousands confiscated by New York police over the past five years, often in drunk-driving cases, that now are being returned to their owners. An appellate court has ruled that the owners' constitutional rights had been violated.

All around him at the pound on a recent afternoon were people who looked bewildered by the process. Some, like him, had their vehicles impounded long ago, others more recently. None were pleased.

Police were shielded from the line of motorists by a glass window with a slot through which papers were passed.

One man learned that he needed $25 more to reclaim his motorcycle. He turned away cursing. He didn't have enough money with him, and he tried to sell his cell phone to the other waiting motorists. There were no takers.

Bissoondial, 30, said his car was seized near his home in Brooklyn after he had parked it partially blocking a crosswalk. Police asked him to move the car, which he did, and then arrested him for drunk driving.

"They saw me drinking a beer earlier," he said. "They arrested me and gave me the Breathalyzer test." After he was convicted of driving while intoxicated, police kept the car.

"I'm still paying the bank for the car. I'm not even driving the vehicle," said Bissoondial, whose payment on his absent Infiniti runs $325 a month.

Bissoondial was at the pound in Queens because the courts had intervened on behalf of New Yorkers who have had their cars confiscated by police for suspicion of such crimes as drunk driving, drug possession and soliciting a prostitute.

The problem, an appellate court ruled, was that the city had not granted defendants prompt hearings to challenge the impounding -- and possible forfeiture -- of their vehicles, thus violating their constitutional rights.

The court said that a car or a truck is often "central to a person's livelihood or daily activities. An individual must be permitted to challenge the city's continued possession of his or her vehicle.... "

Following that decision, U.S. District Judge Michael B. Mukasey said that in the future, hearings should be scheduled within 10 business days after a request by a motorist to have a vehicle returned. The judge set a one-month deadline for notifying thousands of owners whose cases have been backlogged that they could demand quick hearings. About 6,000 vehicles are involved.

"Because of the deadline and the backlog of cars, it was impossible to hold enough hearings," said Paul J. Browne, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information. "In order to respond to the spirit of the court's ruling, we simply notified the owners to pick up their cars.

"We are still seizing the vehicles of drunk drivers," Browne said. "But the drivers will have an opportunity earlier in the process for a hearing."

In February 1999, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implemented a zero-tolerance policy aimed at reducing traffic fatalities. Billed as the toughest in the nation, it allowed police to confiscate vehicles if drivers had a blood-alcohol level higher than the state's then-legal limit of 0.1%. (The threshold has since been lowered to 0.08%.)

Even if the person behind the wheel were found not guilty of driving while intoxicated, the motorist still had to file suit in civil court to get the car back.

In civil proceedings, however, authorities have to meet less strict standards to make their case than is necessary in criminal trials. So even people who beat the drunk-driving charge still could have lost their vehicle.

"They would seize the cars with great fanfare," said Thomas M. O'Brien, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. "They were prevailing by default."

The Legal Aid Society filed the lawsuit challenging the NYPD policy.

O'Brien said that civil suits would drag on for months, as lawyers for the city repeatedly asked for postponements. The tactic caused many motorists simply to give up. With a trial perhaps a year or two away, drivers found the cost of lawyers' fees -- plus making payments on cars sitting idle in city pounds -- too great a hardship.

Once a vehicle has been impounded, there's no guarantee it will come back in the same condition.

When William Washington showed up in late January to pick up his van at the Gowanus Auto Pound, a fenced impound on the Brooklyn waterfront, there was extensive damage, said Michele Davila, his legal representative at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.

Side view mirrors were broken, as was the armrest on the driver's side door. Not only were the battery and transmission destroyed, Davila said, but the front passenger seat was missing, along with a tire -- and the van's toolbox. "The city is not doing a good job safeguarding these cars," Davila said.

When Bissoondial finally reached the police window at the College Point pound, there was one piece of good news -- he didn't have to pay anything. But that didn't mean his problems were over.

Police told him that he would need more identification. His expired driver's license was inadequate, and he had to go home to get his passport. He also learned that his champagne-colored Infiniti was being held not in Queens, but in Brooklyn.

When Bissoondial showed up Tuesday at the Gowanus pound it was snowing. Behind the fence were rows of cars, many with flat tires, hoods sprung and trunks raised.

He said the sight of his car after four years was "beautiful."

Yes, the tires were flat. The battery was dead. The auto was covered with dust, but there was no visible damage.

It cost him $180 to tow it home.

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