Justice Sotomayor's DUI Decision

Every decision by U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor is currently being scrutinized by interested parties, but there is only one decision by judge Sotamayor that deals specifically with DUI. The case arose out of the City of New York’s law that allowed the government to impound and keep the vehicle of a person arrested for DUI on grounds that the car being driven in the course of a DUI was an “instrumentality of crime.” The appeal concerned the failure to give owner of the car an opportunity to challenge the seizure until, in some cases, a year later. The cases before the Court of Appeals involved citizens whose DUI charges had been reduced but their cars were not returned and there was no court date on the horizon to determine whether the vehicles would be returned to the owners. In the meantime, the several of the owners of vehicles were required to continue making monthly payments on the loans and all of them were deprived of the use of the vehicles they owned.

It would have been easy to justify the seizure of the vehicles, and the lack of judicial review of the seizure, on grounds that public safety “exigency” requires that the DUI vehicles be taken off the road. However, the decision reasoned that the public safety rationale was transparent, since the law did not prevent the drivers from driving other cars. In this regard, a Washington State’s DUI courts frequently impose conditions upon the accused driver such as ignition interlocks, etc. in an effort to prevent repeat DUI conduct while the DUI case is pending.

The Sotomayor DUI court analyzed New York's law under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments and meticulously applied analysis required under prior United States Supreme Court decisions. The Sotomayor DUI decision ruled that New York is required by the Constitution to provide a procedure for prompt judicial review to determine whether there is probable cause for the government to retain the vehicle of a driver arrested for DUI. This is not a radical decision, but one that was fair under the Constitution. In arriving at the decision, the Court made some interesting observations: First, the Court found that in these times, a motor vehicle plays an important part in the lives of the average citizen, in some cases necessary as the means to earn a living. Some would argue that Justice Sotomayor was displaying empathy when acknowledging the reality of the necessity of cars in today’s world. The DUI decision written by Justice Sotomayor did take the time to point out the specifics of three of the plaintiffs in the appeal. The court observed as follows:

“Valerie Krimstock, for example, states that the seizure of her vehicle hindered her from traveling from her residence in the Bronx to her job in North Tarrytown and from visiting her daughter who suffers from mental illness and lives in Pennsylvania. The seizure and retention of Clarence Walters' vehicle made it difficult, he reports, to reach his construction job sites-some located in areas of Long Island or New Jersey inaccessible by mass transit-and as a consequence he lost a certain amount of work. James Webb, a 77-year-old retiree, states that the seizure and retention of his vehicle made it difficult for him and his wife to see their doctors and to visit friends, and prevented him from driving his granddaughter to school.”

Also, although the Sotomayer DUI decision was adverse to the city, it was pro-police. The court stated that the risk of a wrongful seizure of a car by a police officer in a DUI case was reduced because "a trained police officer's assessment of the owner-driver’s state of intoxication can typically be expected to be accurate."

The Sotomayor DUI decision discussed herein is a published decision of the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals entitled Krimstock v. Kelly, 306 F.3d 40 (2002). Washington State also has a DUI law that provides for the forfeiture of the vehicle used in a second offense DUI but in practice, the Government does not hold the vehicle pending the outcome of the DUI case. Instead, law provides that the owner of the vehicle may not transfer it while the DUI case is pending.