Nassau County police have begun seizing the vehicles of motorists arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and holding the cars as cases proceed through the courts, county officials said.

The policy, meant to keep dangerous drivers off the road and implemented this spring, calls for an administrative proceeding after a motorist is arrested for driving while intoxicated to determine whether the county can legally hold the vehicle until the criminal case is settled. Suffolk County has had a similar policy since 1999.

For more than a decade, Nassau County has sold vehicles at auction or reached financial settlements with banks or leasing companies that own the vehicles -- but only after a driver is convicted.

Settlement proceeds go the county's general fund, while forfeiture money from auctions goes to the police department.

County Attorney Carnell Foskey said the new system "gets the car off the road after the arrest and hearing and keeps the car available for forfeiture."

Nassau previously returned vehicles to motorists after arrests. But by the time of convictions, the driver's lease or financing agreement on the vehicle had expired, preventing the county from reaching a monetary settlement, Foskey said. Under the new system, Nassau could have a better chance to collect because it will already be in possession of the vehicle.

In May, Nassau hired the Merrick law firm of Campanelli & Associates to represent the county in the hearings, which are held before State Supreme Court Justice Norman Janowitz. The firm, which is paid a third of the proceeds from the sale of the vehicle or the financial settlement, did similar work for Nassau from 2001 to 2003 under then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi.

Garden City defense lawyer Brian Griffin said he is concerned that defendants are being forced to make decisions about their criminal cases based on the potential forfeiture of their vehicles.

"A person has to understand that any plea in a DWI case could result in a loss of a substantial asset," he said.

Griffin said the policy also can bring different punishments for the same offense.

"One might lose a $1,000 car, while another might lose a $50,000 car, and that is not an equal punishment for the same crime," he said.

The new policy is the latest in a series of revisions to DWI seizure practices. In 1999, then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta announced that motorists arrested for DWI would have their vehicles seized and sold at auction.

But delays occurred because the county's attorneys failed to promptly file the extensive paperwork needed to obtain the cars, leading to a backlog of vehicles rusting in county impound lots.

The county hired Campanelli to revamp the program in 2001. But after Nassau had taken possession of more than 6,000 vehicles, the State Court of Appeals in 2003 struck down the seizure law, saying it failed to provide motorists with prompt hearings. The county then began returning vehicles to defendants after their arrests.

Foskey said the new policy ensures that hearings are held within 15 days of arrest. He said Nassau previously used up to four deputy county attorneys per case, and the use of private counsel in the hearings "saves taxpayers money."

Since May, the Campanelli firm has collected a total of $90,000 though vehicle seizures, Foskey said.With Bridget Murphy

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