Civil Forfeiture Backfires on Former Sheriff
Jason Snead / Andrew Kloster /
In January, 21-year-old Sylvia Solano slammed her 2003 BMW into a brick wall. By the time cops arrived, she and her passenger—both uninjured—were sitting atop the obstinate barrier, clearly intoxicated. A breathalyzer confirmed she had a blood alcohol level of 0.24—three times the legal limit and more than enough to book her for DWI. As this was her second offense, cops determined they could seize her car under the county’s DWI civil forfeiture ordinance.
The car belonged to her father, former Santa Fe sheriff Greg Solano, who argued that he was an “innocent owner.” In other words, he had merely loaned his daughter the car that night, and so he wanted his property back, arguing that he played no part in his daughter’s drunk driving offense. But Sheriff Solano knew this wasn’t Sylvia’s first DWI arrest, which meant he couldn’t claim “innocent owner” status, and Santa Fe was legally entitled to seize his car. Sounds unfair, right?
Ironically, back in 2006, then-Sheriff Solano was plugging hard for his county to be allowed to seize the cars of repeat DWI offenders, including instances where the driver was not the owner of the vehicle. Thus, Solano is being hurt by an ordinance he had personally proposed and advocated for while Santa Fe County sheriff.
Back in those days, Solano apparently found the provision to be quite reasonable. Almost prophetically, he wrote in a 2006 blog post that the “ordinance will give family’s [sic] a tool to use when their family members want to use the car and they have a history of drunk driving. They can refuse to lend or allow use of the car and tell their family members the reason is that they do not want to lose the family car.” Too bad he didn’t heed his own advice.
Now that his own BMW is on the line, Solana is singing a different tune. Decrying his innocent owner’s hearing as one-sided “boilerplate,” he has vowed to take Santa Fe to court to fight to get his car back. Solano claims that the ordinance is a violation of a car owner’s due process rights, but he may have some difficulty invalidating the rule he originally championed, since he modeled the ordinance on others that had been upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Even if the law is constitutional, that does not mean it is good policy. We can all feel bad for former Sheriff Solano, but it is safe to say he may have dug his own grave. Indeed, it’s hard not to imagine he now wishes that, once upon a time, he had taken the rights of innocent property owners a little more seriously.