Effectiveness Of The Ohio Vehicle Action And Administrative License Suspension Laws
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Appendix A

Description and Implementation of Ohio Vehicle Action Law

The main body of this report has evaluated the impact of the Ohio Vehicle Action (VA) law on the recidivism of DWS and DUI offenders. This evaluation indicated that impounding and/or immobilizing the vehicle of such offenders reduces their DUI and DWS recidivism both during the period when the vehicle is held by the state and, to a lesser extent, following the return of the vehicle to its owner. The purpose of this appendix is to provide a more detailed description of the VA law and how it was applied in Hamilton and Franklin Counties.

Vehicle action laws tend to be more complex in their application than laws that provide for license suspension. Experience has demonstrated that approximately one-half of the individuals who commit DUI or DWS offenses are operating vehicles in which another individual has an ownership interest. Impounding vehicles belonging to non-offender owners may not be appropriate or possible in many instances. In such cases, the state must make a provision for returning the vehicle while attempting to ensure that the offender does not have access to that vehicle again while under suspension. Similarly, seizing and suspending the driving permit is relatively easy and straightforward, while seizing the vehicle involves towing, storage in a safe facility and, if it is to be immobilized on the owner’s property, arrangements must be made by the police department to club the vehicle and then remove the club at the end of the sanction period.

Because of these and other complexities, the current study made an effort to determine the issues that arise in the implementation of a vehicle action law such as Ohio’s. This appendix is divided into three sections. The first section describes the Ohio Vehicle Action law in detail. The second, describes the implementation and case flow process in Franklin and Hamilton Counties, which were studied intensively in the current research program. The third section reviews issues that arose for the police and courts in the two counties and for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in implementing the VA law.

Appendix B includes forms developed by the immobilization coordinator in Franklin County used to coordinate with law enforcement. Appendix C includes court entry and other forms from Franklin County that are required for vehicle immobilization and forfeiture. Appendix D includes informational brochures used in Ohio to publicize the new DUI laws and a standard BMV form used by the police for ALS and VA actions which also served to inform offenders about the risk of immobilization. Appendix E contains a copy of a poster and leaflet about the law which were used in Franklin County.

THE OHIO VEHICLE ACTION LAW

For several years, an Ohio law permitted the courts to impose a vehicle immobilization penalty for motorists caught driving while suspended (DWS) for driving under the influence (DUI). This penalty was only used in a few smaller Ohio counties. In September 1993, the law was changed to include immobilization for second and subsequent offenses of DUI and certain DWS offenses (see Table A-1). The law requires the immediate impoundment of the vehicle upon arrest in these cases until the courts can order the immobilization and license plate impoundment upon conviction. The length of the immobilization period is 30 days for a first DWS, and 60 days for a second DWS, and 90 days for a second and 180 days for a third DUI offense within 5 years. The court has the option to "immobilize" the vehicle at: (1) a commercially owned or government operated storage lot; (2) a location owned by the offender or immediate family; (3) a public street when parked in accordance with the law; or (4) a place owned by a private person when express written consent is obtained. A third DWS offense or a fourth DUI offense within 5 years can lead to confiscation and forfeiture of the vehicle. Moving a vehicle that has been ordered immobilized by the court results in criminal forfeiture of the vehicle.

Table A-1
Elements of the Ohio Vehicle Action (VA) Law

OFFENSE
PENALTY
Elements of the law included in this study
First DWS for DUI 30-day immobilization/plate impoundment
Second DWS for DUI 60-day immobilization/plate impoundment
Second DUI within 5 years1 90-day immobilization/plate impoundment
Third DUI within 5 years1 180-day immobilization/plate impoundment
Elements of the law not included in this study (too few cases)
Third DWS for DUI Vehicle forfeiture
Fourth DUI within 5 years1 Vehicle forfeiture
DWS for first offense FRA* 30-day immobilization/plate impoundment
DWS for second offense FRA* within 5 years 60-day immobilization/plate impoundment
DWS for third offense FRA* within 5 years Vehicle forfeiture
Permitting a person with no legal right to operate, first offense (state offense only) 30-day immobilization/plate impoundment
Permitting a person with no legal right to operate, second offense (state offenses only) Vehicle forfeiture
*Financial Responsibility Assurance (FRA)

A. Immediate seizure

Section 4507.38 (DWS) and 4511.195 (DUI) of the Ohio statute embodies the law and provides for immediate seizure of the vehicle upon arrest. This permits the vehicle to be towed and stored in an impound lot, pending a hearing that must occur within 5 days to determine whether the vehicle should continue to be held, released, or moved to the offender’s property or some other suitable location for pretrial immobilization with a club device which locks the steering wheel to prevent use of the vehicle. A previous study of state vehicle impoundment laws (Voas, 1992) indicated the importance of taking action against the vehicle at the time of arrest. The combination of impoundment in a government or commercial lot and eventual immobilization (either pre- or post-trial) permits seizing the vehicle at the time of arrest while still providing for the less expensive (for the offender) immobilization procedure after a short bridging period of impoundment. Initially, some offenders in Ohio tried to circumvent the law by selling or transferring the vehicle before trial. This problem was alleviated with a legislative amendment that penalized the pretrial sale or transfer of the offending vehicle. If this occurs, the vehicle owner is blocked from registering another vehicle for 2 years.

B. Provisions for innocent owners

The VA law states that, "The arresting officer…shall seize the vehicle that the person was operating at the time of the alleged offense or that was involved in the alleged offense and its identification plates. Except as otherwise provided in this (law), the officer shall seize the vehicle and license plates under this (law), regardless of whether the vehicle is registered in the name of the person who was operating it or in the name of another person."

Section 4503.235, Protection of the Rights of Innocent Vehicle Owners, of the Ohio code provides that "a vehicle shall not be immobilized and its identification license plates shall not be impounded … if all of the following apply…if (1) the person who is convicted or pleads guilty to the DUI/DWS violation… is not the vehicle owner; (2) the vehicle owner prior to the time of the issuance of the order of immobilization and impoundment or forfeiture files a motion to the court requesting that the order not be issued because the vehicle owner was innocent of any wrong-doing relative to the offense and violation in question; and (3) the prosecutor fails to establish at trial that the vehicle owner knew or should have known that the vehicle was to be used or involved or likely to be involved in the offense, or the vehicle owner or his agent expressly or impliedly consented to the use or involvement of the vehicle in the offense or violation."

Thus, the law intended that completely innocent owners would have their vehicles returned while those who should have known that the driver was unlicensed and knowingly allowed the person to drive would have their vehicles impounded and immobilized. This feature of the law was overturned in April 1995 by a U.S. District Court judge who found that the innocent or nonoffender owners were not receiving adequate notice of the impoundment and forfeiture sections of the law at the time their vehicles were seized; as a result, they were in danger of having their vehicles held for at least 30 days pending trial of the offender. To date, the legislature has taken no action to pass a law that would meet the constitutional requirement of adequate notice to nonoffender vehicle owners established in the U.S. District Court decision (Kutschmach vs. Davies). Consequently, after this court decision, police agencies in Ohio stopped seizing vehicles not owned by the offender. The Supreme Court of Ohio upheld the District Court decision and noted that the court was not prohibited from immobilizing non-offender owned vehicles upon conviction of the offender (Ohio vs. Hochhausler). It is difficult for the prosecutor to establish the vehicle owner "should have known" in DUI cases, but not so difficult in DWS cases when the owner is a spouse of the offender.

C. Impounding vehicle plates

The original legislation provided that, in addition to impounding the vehicle upon arrest, the license plates and registration would also be seized. In practice, the plates were usually not removed until the vehicle was ordered immobilized by the court. The law was later amended to authorize impoundment of the registration and plates at the time of sentencing. At that time, the plates are usually removed from the vehicle and sent to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) where they are destroyed.

The provision in the law for both vehicle immobilization and seizure of the license plates is unusual. In some states–notably in Minnesota–the vehicle is incapacitated or rendered "immobilized" by a plate impoundment process without using either a boot or a club device. The provision in the Ohio law that authorizes the use of both an immobilizing device and confiscation of the plates appears to provide double assurance that the vehicle will not be moved during the sanction period. Another benefit of plate confiscation is it prevents using the plates on another unregistered vehicle.

D. Amendments to the law

Several major amendments have been made to the Ohio law since it was passed in September 1993.

  • The amount of time allowed to claim a vehicle after deimmobilization was shortened from 60 to 20 days.
  • Vehicles that are leased or rented for less than 30 days are not subject to immobilization.
  • The Court must obtain written permission from apartment building managers before ordering a vehicle to be immobilized on the property of an apartment building.
  • A vehicle owner transferring or selling the "offending" vehicle during the time between arrest and trial is blocked from registering another vehicle for 2 years.
  • At the initial hearing, held within 5 days after arrest, the court is now required to advise the vehicle owner that (1) if the vehicle is not claimed within 7 days of the deimmobilization date, they will be notified in writing that the vehicle will be forfeited within 20 days if not claimed; (2) prior to issuance of new plates and release of an immobilized vehicle, the $100 immobilization fee and all towing and storage fees must be paid.
  • If the $100 immobilization fee is not paid, the vehicle owner will be blocked from registering another vehicle. (Prior to this amendment, a title block was placed on the vehicle if the immobilization fee was not paid.)

IMPLEMENTATION PROCESSES IN FRANKLIN AND HAMILTON COUNTIES

A. The Two Counties

Franklin and Hamilton Counties both encompass large metropolitan cities in Ohio, and, as illustrated in Table A-2, are similar demographically. The level of police enforcement is slightly higher in Hamilton County than in Franklin County (7.1 vs 6.1 DUI arrests per thousand).

Table A-2
Characteristics of Franklin and Hamilton Counties

 
Jurisdiction
Characteristics
Franklin County
(Columbus)
Hamilton County
(Cincinnati)
Population
961,437
82% White
16% Black
866,200
77% White
21% Black
Per capita income
$14,907
$15,354
DUIs (1993)
5,875
6,184
DUI arrests (per thousand)
6.1
7.1
Police force
33 agencies
46 agencies
# of registered vehicles
893,613
719,065
Road mileage
3,949
3,153
Fatal crashes
71
64
Injuries
19,885
15,878
Injuries (per thousand population)
20.7%
18.3%
Sources: Ohio Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1994 County and City Databook.

B. Impoundment/Immobilization Procedures

The Ohio law calls for the immediate impoundment and then immobilization of vehicles at a location owned by the offender or his or her family (usually a home) or at government or private storage lots. Franklin and Hamilton Counties chose to implement the law using different methods of immobilization. Franklin County uses a combination of impoundment and immobilization with a club device on eligible vehicles while Hamilton County uses vehicle impoundment only for the entire length of the sanction period to enforce the law.

1. Case flow in Franklin County

In Franklin County, typically the vehicle of an eligible offender is impounded immediately upon arrest. Within 5 days, a judge or magistrate holds a hearing to determine if the vehicle was seized appropriately and whether it should remain impounded until trial (see Figure A-1 for case flow). Some judges allow impounded vehicles to be moved out of the storage lot for pretrial immobilization. The vehicle is then moved by court order to the offender’s home or other location for immobilization with a steering wheel club device which prevents the vehicle from being driven. The vehicle owner is required to make arrangements for transfer of the vehicle and with the police department (designated in the court order) to have the vehicle clubbed. This saves the offender the daily storage lot fees that would have accumulated before the trial date. Some judges do not allow pretrial immobilization. They believe that the courts should be involved in this process, but that the legislative language permits police departments to do so before the trial. The police departments, however, generally believe that a court order is required. After passage of the law, some judges allowed the vehicles of innocent owners to be released pretrial because proving that an owner knew that the offender/driver had a suspended license or a history of impaired driving was often difficult. On the other hand, some judges denied an innocent owner’s request for release of a vehicle on the presumption that an owner should have known the offender’s license status, especially when the offender was a relative. However, as previously described, a District Court decision has basically eliminated the seizure of vehicles upon arrest that are registered to someone other than the offender.

Figure A-1
Franklin County
Vehicle Impound/Immobilization Process

Franklin County, Vehicle Impound/Immobilization Process Chart

Credit is given for time served by the vehicle from date of the offender’s arrest and seizure of the vehicle. If the offender is incarcerated upon arrest, initially the vehicle was not given credit for the days the offender was in jail. A subsequent amendment in the law now gives credit for days in jail. Upon conviction in Franklin County, if the "offending" vehicle has not already been immobilized pretrial, it can then be moved from the storage lot to the offender’s home or another location and immobilized by the police agency designated in the court order. Towing and storage fees must be paid before a vehicle can be removed from the storage lot. If the vehicle owner does not cooperate with the installation of a club device (which requires access to the vehicle’s interior), a boot device can be attached to the wheel. Some offenders fail to make arrangements with the police department for immobilization of their vehicle at another location and abandon the vehicles to the storage lot. Accordingly to the coordinator’s records, approximately 23% of vehicles are abandoned. Consequently, some police departments will immobilize the vehicle at the storage lot or simply leave it at the lot on a court-ordered "hold" until the immobilization period has expired. Vehicle license plates are removed after conviction and forwarded to the BMV where they are destroyed.

Offenders must pay a $100 immobilization fee to the BMV (which, in turn, reimburses the police department or other government agency) before a vehicle that has "served its time" can be released. After payment has been verified, the police department arranges with the offender to deimmobilize the vehicle and remove the club device. For those vehicles that "serve their time" in the storage lot, the vehicle can be released upon payment of the $100 immobilization fee and all storage and towing fees. If the vehicle is not claimed within 7 days after the immobilization period ends, the police agency is required to notify the vehicle owner that if it is not claimed within 20 days, the vehicle will be forfeited. If the law enforcement agency does not want the vehicle, the impound lot owner may obtain the vehicle’s title under abandoned vehicle statutes. As of this writing, there is some question about whether abandoned vehicle statutes in Ohio are applicable to immobilized vehicles.

2. Logistics and paperflow in Franklin County

A grant from the Ohio Department of Public Safety initially supported a court-based vehicle immobilization coordinator in Franklin County to assist the court and law enforcement agencies in implementing the law and to maintain records needed for implementation and evaluation. In addition, funds were provided through NHTSA to fund a half-time data entry assistant to collect information needed for evaluation. The city of Columbus has now funded both of these positions.

In Franklin County, after a vehicle has been ordered immobilized by the court, the vehicle immobilization coordinator receives the court order and then faxes it, along with identifying information (offender name, address, phone numbers; vehicle identification information; current location of the vehicle; and the effective dates and length of immobilization), to the police jurisdiction in which the offenders lives. (See Appendix B for forms developed by the immobilization coordinator to coordinate with law enforcement.) Although offenders are instructed by the court to contact the police agency within a week, often they do not. Therefore, the police must track down the offender to make arrangements for immobilization. For this purpose, keeping accurate records of the offender’s home and work telephone numbers is essential. The court bailiffs are charged with recording this information for the immobilization coordinator to transmit to the police departments. (See Appendix C for court entry and other forms that are required for the disposition of vehicle immobilization forfeiture orders.)

After contacting the offender, the police department arranges to meet at his or her home or another suitable location (e.g., the home of a friend or relative) to immobilize the vehicle. An apartment building is usually not suitable since the Columbus Apartment Owners Association complained about having vehicles without license plates on their properties for extended periods. The VA law was subsequently amended to require written permission from apartment managers to immobilize vehicles on their properties. If permission is not obtained, the offender must find another location. Depending on parking regulations, a city street is not usually a suitable location as the license plates have been removed. After meeting with the offender, the police officer identifies the vehicle by color, make, model, and identification number. Subsequently, a club device is locked onto the steering wheel, the mileage is noted, and a large sign warning that the vehicle should not be moved by order of the police department is placed in the vehicle’s front windshield. The police department must establish a system for matching the club device keys with each immobilized vehicle. The police agency then faxes confirmation of immobilization to the vehicle immobilization coordinator. The coordinator completes and forwards a BMV form that the court is required to send to the BMV on all vehicles subject to this law (see Appendix D). When processed, this form triggers notification to the vehicle owner of the $100 immobilization fee and a potential registration block if the fee is not paid. As the offender and vehicle owner may not be the same, the immobilization coordinator has recommended that a registration block be place on the offender as well.

There is an additional series of tasks associated with deimmobilization. The police must again contact the offender to arrange a meeting for removal of the club device. Prior to this, the offender must show proof that the $100 immobilization fee has been paid. After deimmobilization, the police fax a form to the immobilization coordinator to verify that the vehicle has in fact "served its time."

3. Case flow in Hamilton County

As in Franklin County, the vehicle of an eligible offender is impounded immediately upon arrest and a court hearing is held within 5 days to determine if the vehicle was seized appropriately and should remain impounded until trial (see Figure A-2 for case flow). Hamilton County enforces the Ohio law by keeping the eligible vehicle in a city, county, or private storage lot for the duration of the vehicle sanction. Officials chose this method over immobilization with a club device because there were concerns about liability, the expense of clubbing, access by emergency vehicles–since a clubbed vehicle cannot be moved quickly–and the apparent ease with which offenders can unclub their vehicles. As in Franklin County, Hamilton County judges held varied opinions on the release of vehicles to innocent owners.

Figure A-2
Hamilton County
Vehicle Impoundment Process

Hamiton County, Vehicle Impoundment Process Chart

After conviction in Hamilton County, the Clerk of Traffic Courts fills out an immobilization or forfeiture order that includes the names of the offender and vehicle owner (if different) and faxes it to, or holds it for, the arresting police agency, which is then responsible for carrying out the order. To release a vehicle that has "served its time" from an impound lot, vehicle owners must show proof that the $100 immobilization fee has been paid to the BMV; storage and towing fees must also be paid. Impound lot operators can gain title to abandoned vehicles, but the owner must be notified of the impending procedure by certified mail as in Franklin County. In Hamilton County, a court order must be obtained to secure the title of an abandoned vehicle. The Cincinnati Police Impound Unit estimates that approximately 33% are abandoned to the impound lot.

4. Logistics and paper flow in Hamilton County

Most of the burden of the additional paperwork created by the Ohio VA law falls to the Clerk of Courts and to the police agencies that operate the impound lots. The Clerk must prepare hundreds of immobilization orders and transmit them to the arresting police agency. All immobilization cases are heard in the same courtroom to ease vehicle tracking. The Cincinnati City Prosecutor’s office has a "no plea bargain" policy for these cases since the city would be left paying the towing and lot storage fees if a case is reduced or dismissed. If, for some reason, a vehicle is released pretrial and is subsequently ordered impounded, the arresting police agency attempts to locate the vehicle by determining an address through BMV records. If a vehicle has already "served its time" by the time of conviction, an immobilization order must still be entered into the record so that there can be a release order. This is also necessary so that the BMV has a record that enables the collection of the $100 fee. Vehicle license plates are generally removed after conviction and forwarded to the Clerk of Courts who sends them to the BMV.

The impound units of the City of Cincinnati Police and Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department handle a majority of the county immobilization cases. They have computerized records systems that track the sentences of vehicles in their impound lots. One particularly vexing problem for the police impound unit is determining the court disposition of approximately one-third of the vehicles in their lots at a given time. The majority are "no shows" in court or cases that have been continued. The city impound lot charges $8 per day, while the county sheriff’s department charges $6 per day with a half price discount on immobilization cases after the first 5 days of impoundment. To some extent, this discount reduces the problem of low-value vehicles that are abandoned. Those that are abandoned are of little value and often not worth the effort to sell them at auction. The police agencies in Hamilton County did not have the option of selling abandoned vehicles to salvage yards at the time this study was completed.

For the few impounded vehicles of value being financed by their owners, lien-holders must provide a repossession title, sign an affidavit stating that they will not release the vehicle to the owner, and that they will pay the storage costs and the $100 fee. These documents must be taken to the prosecutor’s office to verify that the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture. A judge then signs a release order which is faxed to the arresting agency for release to the lien-holder.

In addition to the release requirements to pay the $100 fee and storage costs after the immobilization period has been served in the impound lot, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department uses a civil code to deny the release of vehicles whose owners have no vehicle insurance. Although this practice adds to the abandoned vehicle problem, there is a concern about liability when releasing an uninsured vehicle from their impound lot.

Table A-3 compares the implementation procedures in Franklin and Hamilton Counties.

Table A-3
Comparison of implementation procedures in Franklin and Hamilton Counties


Procedures
Franklin County
(includes Columbus)
Hamilton County
(includes Cincinnati)
Method of enforcing law Vehicle impoundment followed by immobilization with club device and plate removal Vehicle impoundment and plate removal
Pretrial practices Some pretrial immobilization or vehicle remains impounded Vehicle remains impounded
Use of impoundment facilities City-owned lot and multiple private towing companies Mainly city- and county-owned lots
Fees charged for storage $7 to $8 per day $3 to $8 per day
Procedure for getting title for abandoned vehicles Registered owner notified by police by certified mail after 7 days and given 20 days to respond Same as Franklin County, but court order also required
Method for tracking immobilization cases Court-based immobilization coordinator handles paperwork between courts and police departments Clerk of Courts sends court orders to police departments (or police departments pick up court orders from clerk)
Recipient of $100 immobilization fee Goes to the city or county police department that immobilizes the vehicle Goes into city general fund–specific fund for county sheriff’s department
Start-up issues that were resolved for the most part (some solutions discussed in Section A-3 of this appendix)
  • Communication between courts and police and vice — versa
  • Timely execution of the court order by police
  • No court entry for dismissals and for vehicles that had served time before conviction
  • Pretrial sale of vehicles
  • Loss of income by impound lot owners who could not recover costs
Interpreting BMV record to determine eligibility for arrestDetermining court disposition of vehicles in impound lotGetting abandoned vehicles released for sale or salvageOverflowing impound lots

IMPLEMENTATION ISSUES

A. Overview

The application of any new sanction inevitably creates new work for one or more of the agencies in the driver control system–the police department, the court, the motor vehicle department, and the jail system. The implementation processes described in the previous section allude to several implementation issues created by vehicle impoundment and immobilization and plate confiscation:

  • Variations in application of the law
  • Establishing and maintaining lines of communication
  • Disposing of abandoned vehicles
  • Additional workload
  • Public Awareness

Court staff and law enforcement officers were periodically interviewed throughout this study about their experiences relating to implementing the VA law. These included judges, prosecutors, police officers who enforce the law, and those who manage the police impound lots in Franklin and Hamilton Counties. The court-based immobilization coordinator in Franklin County provided information and insight on process issues on a regular basis to inform the study. This section describes some of the issues that arose during implementation of the law and some proposed or implemented solutions. Even though there were start-up problems, support for the law from court and law enforcement officials in both counties continues to be high as the law is felt to be effective.

B. Variations in Application of the Law

As with all new legislation, the Ohio law was subject to differing interpretations. There were some objections to certain provisions of the law by police, prosecutors, judges, and Bureau of Motor Vehicle officials. These differing interpretations led to variations in the treatment of offenders during the first 2 years of the program.

In some cases, police officers decided to use alternate, simpler charging codes rather than the more complex procedures involved in impounding and immobilizing a vehicle. In other cases, police officers had difficulty accessing and interpreting driver records, causing either errors of omission or commission in charging motorists. A long lag time between the occurrence of a driving offense and entry into the driving record also contributed to missing some eligible offenders but this problem has been resolved.

Prosecutors reduced or dismissed cases to ease caseloads and paperwork. If verifying driver records and license status at the time of the offense for trial was difficult, this increased the workload and contributed to additional reduced or dismissed cases. As noted in the previous section, the Cincinnati City Prosecutor’s office has a stated policy of not reducing or dismissing arrests made under the VA law.

The law originally provided that all vehicles were to be seized at the time of arrest including those belonging to innocent or nonoffender owners. When it could be demonstrated that the nonoffender owner was or should have been aware that the offender was unlicensed, vehicles belonging to them could be immobilized or remain impounded, but the burden of proof was on the prosecutor. Some judges and prosecutors narrowly interpreted the innocent owner exception while others did not. Further, over time, some nonoffender owners and their lawyers learned what to say to invoke an innocent owner exception.

As previously described, the seizure portion of the law relating to non-offenders was later overturned by a District Court decision, citing insufficient notice to vehicle owners. Later, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the District Court Decision but did not prohibit the immobilization or forfeiture of the nonoffender owner’s vehicle after conviction of the driver of the vehicle. In practice, however, neither county usually impounds or immobilizes a vehicle owned by a third party after the conviction of the offender.

As of this writing, there was a trend in Franklin County for judges to order the immobilization of non-offender owners in DWS cases when the owner is a spouse of the offender. Much of this variation in the application of the Ohio law is inherent in all justice and motor vehicle systems. However, information about procedures presented in a clear and direct way can and did improve consistency in applying the law in Ohio.

C. Lines of Communication

Successfully implementing the VA law required that clear lines of communication be established. Both Hamilton and Franklin Counties used a committee or task force consisting of representatives from police agencies, judges, prosecutors, and other court personnel to coordinate implementation of the VA law. The state also conducted training conferences for judges and prosecutors to introduce the VA and other new laws.

Despite these efforts, both counties initially experienced problems when the lines of communication between agencies were not clear. As these are large jurisdictions with many players, a certain amount of confusion was expected. The counties acted quickly to clear the confusion by calling meetings with key participants to answer questions about procedures.

The immobilization coordinator in Franklin County was particularly helpful in keeping the lines of communication open between the police, judges, court staff, the BMV, defense attorneys, and offenders. He created new forms when needed to facilitate communication and was instrumental in the passage of amendments to improve implementation processes. The prosecutor in Cincinnati took a lead role in problem solving and coordinating with the police and other court staff as implementation issues arose in that jurisdiction.

A standardized BMV form used by all courts in Ohio for immobilization orders was helpful. It included all the pertinent information about the offense, court outcome, the offender, the vehicle, and location of the vehicle. It is a four-part form with copies going to the offender, BMV, police agency, and the court (see Appendix D).

A technical handbook with a series of updates on Ohio’s DUI laws, published by the Ohio Department of Public Safety, was a valuable tool for keeping the police, courts, and BMV abreast of procedures and amendments to the VA law.

D. Abandoned Vehicles

Traditionally, abandoned vehicles in impound lots for any reason create a problem. When storage fees accumulate in excess of the vehicle’s value, the owner abandons the vehicle. Most of the vehicles impounded under the VA law are valued at less than $500, thus often making them worth less than the total costs required for release. Storage fees can range from $3 to $8 per day, and it is not uncommon for a case to take 90 days to come to trial. The longer the vehicle sanction period, the larger the abandoned vehicle problem becomes. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department offers a half-priced discount ($3 per day) for vehicles in the impound lot under the VA law. Theoretically, this practice can reduce the abandoned vehicle problem, although this issue was not studied.

Abandoned vehicles can cause a loss of income for impound lot owners, the private operators in particular. Some city and county police agencies are liable for storage fees of vehicles abandoned at private lots. The police agencies in the two counties studied have their own impound lots but also use private lots to impound vehicles. During this study, one of the private lots reportedly sued the city of Columbus for unpaid fees, while another lot refused to accept vehicles under court-ordered immobilization holds.

Immobilization can alleviate the abandoned vehicle problem to some extent. The club device is relatively inexpensive and the offender pays a $100 fee for the installation and removal of the device. (The Office of Traffic Safety, Ohio Department of Public Safety, provided the club devices to start the immobilization effort in Franklin County.) In Franklin County, long periods of impoundment are sometimes avoided with immobilization with a club device either pre- or post-trial. The percentage of abandoned vehicles was lower in Franklin County; 23% compared to an estimated 33% in Hamilton County.

Originally, the VA law allowed owners 60 days after the sentence completion date to claim their vehicle before it was forfeited. This created a heavy financial burden on impound lot operators who had to hold the vehicles until the immobilization period (30-180 days) had been served plus an additional 60 days. The title of a vehicle with an immobilization hold was blocked by the BMV until the vehicle sentence had been completed and the $100 immobilization fee had been paid. These policies prevented lot owners from getting the vehicle title for sale or salvage for several months in some cases. This problem was addressed with a legislative amendment to the VA law that shortened the time allowed to claim a vehicle (after the required written notification 7 days after the immobilization expiration date) from 60 to 20 days. Further, the title block provision has been replaced by a registration block on the vehicle owner.

Another complication arises when a vehicle owner voluntarily agrees to forfeit the vehicle as it is not worth paying the fees to retrieve it. Vehicles forfeited under the law trigger a 5 year registration block for the owner. Some provision yet needs to be made to distinguish between a voluntary vehicle forfeiture and a vehicle that is forfeited due to an eligible offense.

E. Workload

1. Police

As described previously, the increase in workload for police officers to impound vehicles and later immobilize and deimmobilize (in Franklin County) or release vehicles can be significant, but it is thought to be worth the effort. Some departments assign one or more "immobilization officers" to follow-up on impounded and/or immobilized vehicles. If the police department operates its own impound lot, tracking vehicles under court-ordered immobilization holds creates additional work. Additionally, extra work is required when police do not have easy access to computerized court records to determine the current status of vehicles in their lots. Unlike Franklin County, the Hamilton County police agencies had no immobilization coordinator to monitor the flow of information about vehicles, which added to their workload. They did not, however, have the additional work involved in making appointments with offenders for the immobilization and deimmobilization of vehicles. There has been a trend in Ohio to opt for impounding vehicles for the length of the sanction period rather than immobilize with a club device. Franklin County, however, successfully continues its fourth year of immobilizing vehicles. Another significant workload issue for the police impound units are the many inevitable abandoned "junker" vehicles that require removal or disposal.

Although the increased workload can be substantial for police agencies, it is offset by the income generated from the $100 immobilization fees. In Franklin County, the $100 fees go directly to the police departments while in Hamilton County, the fees generated by city police agencies go into a general city fund. Fees generated by the Sheriff’s Department in Hamilton County go into a special fund designated for the Sheriff’s Department. In calendar year 1994, jurisdictions in Franklin County were reimbursed $46,000 in immobilization fees and, in Hamilton County, $68,000 in fees.

2. Court

Immobilization cases take additional courtroom time for such issues as determining if the vehicle was seized appropriately, for separate hearings for innocent owners, and (in Hamilton County) to transfer title of abandoned vehicles. Judges, prosecutors, clerks and bailiffs have to complete additional forms, and extra time is required to check the computerized driving record system to determine the appropriate sentence.

Not all jurisdictions will be able to fund a position such as the Franklin County court-based immobilization coordinator to keep records and manage the flow of paperwork between the court and the police departments. Consequently, the burden of paperwork and tracking vehicles usually falls to the court clerk’s office and the police departments and/or police impound lots.

3. Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV)

There is additional work for the BMV to record the dates of immobilization (received from the courts) on an offender’s state vehicle registration file. Since legislation prohibited the sale of immobilized vehicles, the BMV put an automatic title block on the vehicles until the sanction period was completed and the $100 fee was paid. However, some owners continued to sell vehicles that were in impound lots, causing problems for the new owner who could not get the title or had to pay the $100 immobilization fee. Consequently, title officials complained and a new legislative amendment prohibited title action. The same amendment now provides for blocking the vehicle owner from registering any vehicles until the sanction period is complete and the $100 fee is paid. Extra work is also involved for the BMV to collect the $100 immobilization fees and distribute these funds to the police agency or jurisdiction that was responsible for carrying out the VA order.

F. Public Awareness

There was a significant public information campaign about the changes to Ohio’s DUI laws that was initiated prior to the original July 1 effective date of the legislation and continued through the actual implementation date of September 1993 and beyond. The Swift and Sure campaign included information about the new ALS law and the VA law, or as referred to in Ohio, the Immobilization Law. A press conference was held by the Governor, and a series of radio and television ads were aired statewide. The ads focused on ALS, but there were also public service announcements and on-going news releases on the risk of vehicle impoundment, immobilization, and forfeiture. Two Swift and Sure informational brochures and the BMV form used by the police to record ALS and immobilization actions, which has information on the reverse side of the form for the offender about the risk of vehicle immobilization, are included in Appendix E.

In addition to this statewide publicity directed at the general driving public, some localities implemented educational activities focused more specifically on offenders at risk for the immobilization sanction. In Franklin County, for example, posters (Appendix E) were displayed in the local offices of the BMV and leaflets (Appendix E) were circulated to drivers convicted of driving under the influence warning of the vehicle impoundment/immobilization penalty for DUI and DWS offenses.

In addition, some of the court mandated educational programs (DUI schools) for first DUI offenders included information on the immobilization law in their curricula, as did Franklin County. The majority of attendees at these programs are first-time DUI offenders who would be at risk of impoundment and immobilization for driving with a suspended license as a result of a DUI conviction and/or for a subsequent DUI conviction.

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