5/26/2005South Africa: High Court Rules Against Car Seizures
South Africa's Port Elizabeth High Court rejects the increasingly popular tactic of seizing cars without due process.
Although many U.S. states have turned to car seizure without due process as a form of punishment -- Florida recently passed legislation allowing seizure of cars used in "racing" -- the Port Elizabeth High Court ruled yesterday that the practice was unlawful. The government had seized the vehicles of five motorists charged with drunk driving, even though they had not been convicted of any crime.
U.S. courts get around due process concerns by allowing proceedings to be brought against the automobiles, not the drivers. "It is the property which is proceeded against, and, by resort to a legal fiction, held guilty and condemned as though it were conscious instead of inanimate and insentient," the Supreme Court wrote in 1931. See, for example, the 7th Circuit decision, "United States v. One 1976 Mercedes Benz 280S."
Rejecting the legal fiction, South African Justice Richard Jones wrote, "The only link is that they were the vehicles being driven at the time of the commission of the offences, which in my view makes them purely incidental to the commission of offences. The driver would still have committed the offence if he had chosen to drive another motorcar... the use of the motor vehicle is incidental."
The court ordered the vehicles to be returned to the five motorists who await trial on drunk driving charges.