Innocent Criminal 

DUI car-seizure laws can negatively affect those whose records are clean.

When Olive Branch resident Raymond Sutherland loaned his 1985 Dodge Ramcharger to a friend visiting from Ohio, he had no idea the trouble he'd have to go through to get it back. No, his friend didn't steal it or wreck it. It was seized by the Memphis police.

Sutherland's friend, whom we'll call L.R., asked to borrow the car to run an errand in Olive Branch on April 14th. Once L.R. was finished with his errand, he decided, without notifying Sutherland, to drive to Memphis to visit an old friend. While in Memphis, L.R. was pulled over at the corner of Poplar and McNeil by a Memphis police officer for having a headlight out and driving without a seatbelt.

It was quickly determined that L.R. was driving on a suspended license due to a Memphis DUI conviction in 1997, and what began as a routine traffic stop turned into what would become a legal nightmare for Sutherland. L.R. was arrested and Sutherland's car was towed to the city's impound lot.

Once Sutherland was notified of the circumstances, he contacted the impound lot and was told that a "hold" had been placed on his vehicle. He then contacted the vice-narcotics department, which handles all car seizures in Memphis, and was informed about a law that allows police agencies in Tennessee to seize vehicles involved in DUI-related cases, regardless of ownership.

The law allows for seizure and possible forfeiture of a vehicle when the driver is charged with driving on a suspended or revoked license due to a DUI conviction. A similar law allows for seizure and possible forfeiture of vehicles involved in a person's second DUI arrest.

"I wouldn't have had a problem with them impounding my vehicle and making me aware of the situation. But to threaten me with the loss of my vehicle when I've committed no crime! That goes against everything I've ever learned about the American justice system," said Sutherland.

The state's title for Sutherland is "innocent owner," and according to Inspector Richard Sojourner of the local vice-narcotics unit, such cases are common, although he said it more often involves drug-related cases. However, he said, the term "innocent" can be deceptive.

"The law says it's your responsibility to be aware of who's driving your vehicle," he said. "If I loan my vehicle to you, it's my responsibility to know whether or not you have a valid driver's license. If I don't meet that responsibility, then my vehicle is subject to seizure."

Three weeks later, Sutherland is still trying to retrieve his vehicle, which is now being held by the state Department of Safety. Ironically, all charges were dismissed against Sutherland's friend L.R.

In the end, Sutherland will pay $945 to get his car back. The state requires a $350 fee. The Memphis police want $500, and he has to pay $75 for towing and $20 for a couple days' storage at the impound lot. The money goes to the Department of Health, which administers drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Sutherland has the option of going to trial to avoid paying the settlement fees. However, if he loses, his vehicle will be forfeited and sold at auction. The odds are probably in his favor, but, according to Beth Womack at the Tennessee Department of Safety, the process can take up to four months.

If Sutherland had decided his vehicle -- a 1985 model -- was not worth the money he had to pay to retrieve it, he could have allowed the city to forfeit the car and sell it at auction. Sutherland says he'll continue trying to get his vehicle returned because it's his only car. He's currently borrowing a friend's car to get to work.

DUI car-seizure laws, which were enacted in 1998, are optional laws, and while the Memphis police choose to enforce them, the Shelby County Sheriff's Department does not. Steve Schular, public relations officer for the sheriff's office, said he wasn't able to find out why they're not enforcing the laws, but says they probably will be soon, since the county and city police agencies are doing some functional consolidation. The Memphis Metro DUI Unit already has jurisdiction in the county.

According to Sojourner, Memphis police seized 27 vehicles in DUI/DOR (driving on revoked license) arrests in January, 39 in February, and 36 in March. They have no statistics as to how many of those cases involved "innocent owners." He said these innocent third-party scenarios should send a message that people should be more responsible. But Sutherland added that he would like to see the law changed.

"They should just issue innocent owners a citation the first time this happens," said Sutherland. "I'm being penalized and I don't even have a ticket. They're seizing property from a person who has committed no crime."

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