Wanna drive drunk? Borrow a Bentley
Court tosses DUI seizure case
Drunken drivers with prior convictions for driving under the influence might consider driving expensive cars, given a recent ruling by an Illinois appellate court.
“That’s, essentially, the policy that’s being espoused by the Fifth District (Appellate Court),” said David Robinson, a state appellate prosecutor who came out on the losing end of a case in which the court reversed a trial judge and ordered a pricey motorcycle returned to its owner.
In a Sept. 22 ruling, the Fifth District Appellate Court reversed a ruling by Crawford County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Weber, who had upheld the seizure of a $35,000 Harley-Davidson trike from a woman who was a passenger when her husband was busted for driving under the influence. In reversing the forfeiture, the appellate court ruled that vehicle’s value was out of proportion with the misdeed, and so seizure was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, which bars excessive fines to punish wrongdoing.
In reversing the trial judge, the appellate court said that the financial circumstance of the trike’s owner didn’t matter – whether she was rich or poor, the vehicle’s value alone made the seizure a “harsh penalty” that was out of step with the gravity of the offense, the appellate court ruled.
Assistant Sangamon County state’s attorney Dwayne Gab, who handles forfeiture local cases, said that he wasn’t familiar with the recent ruling, but judges in similar forfeiture cases have considered a person’s financial status as well as whether the underlying offense was a felony or misdemeanor in determining whether seizure is appropriate when the vehicle’s legal owner wasn’t behind the wheel. In the Crawford County case, the driver, who had a revoked license from a prior DUI case, pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI, a felony.
“I’m surprised by that ruling,” Gab said. “I think that it is unusual, given previous case law in relation to disproportionality. … It is something that people will pay attention to. Certainly, it is a case that we will need to review and consider.”
Petra Henderson, who owned the trike and was making payments on it, knew that her husband Mark’s driver’s license had been revoked due to a DUI conviction. The couple had been bar hopping, and he insisted on driving home from a bar 12 blocks from their home in Robinson, Petra testified. A breath test showed a blood-alcohol content of .161 percent, more than twice the legal limit.
In forfeiture cases, folks who have had motor vehicles seized when others were behind the wheel typically claim that they either didn’t know the driver didn’t have a valid license or were powerless to stop the driver. Whether Henderson allowed her husband to drive the trike was a key issue, according to the trial court. Although Petra said that she never gave her husband permission to pilot the Harley, the trial judge was skeptical – after all, the electronic fob to start the bike was in his pocket, and the passenger had to get on first due to the configuration of the trike, according to court documents.
“The entire issue is whether Ms. Henderson gave consent to Mr. Henderson to drive this motorcycle, and it appears to me in this situation that actions speak louder than words,” Judge Weber said from the bench when granting forfeiture. “She got on the motorcycle and they took off and the evidence is that they live about 12 blocks away so…it’s not as if they were out on the interstate 50 miles from home where it would be impossible for her to find another way home, and so, therefore I doubt the testimony that has been presented by the claimants, and therefore I am going to rule in favor of the state.”
The appellate court didn’t dispute Weber’s logic. But, even if Petra Henderson knew that her husband was drunk and had a revoked license and nonetheless allowed him to drive her motorcycle, seizing the vehicle was an overly harsh punishment, the court determined. The court also noted that Mark Henderson traveled just 12 blocks from the bar to his home, where he was arrested in his driveway.
“This likely took only a few minutes,” the court wrote in its ruling. “Although we do not consider this factor to be particularly significant under the facts of this case, we find that it weighs slightly against forefeiture.”
Robinson said the case is one of several in the past five years or so in which courts have backed off forfeiture cases involving seizures made when someone other than the vehicle’s owner was driving. Like Gab, however, Robinson said he believes that the court in this case went further than in the past.
“There’s no question – this moves it forward a little bit,” Robinson said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.