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Grand Isle prosecutor going after DUI repeat offenders with seldom-used car forfeiture law

Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 3:47 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 31, 2020 at 9:49 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Should Vermont prosecutors be able to take away cars from repeat DUI offenders to keep them off the road? A seldom-used statute is gaining traction with the Grand Isle County State’s Attorney.

Christopher Moore is calling in for his arraignment at the Grand Isle Courthouse. The Peru, New York, man is pleading not guilty to his second DUI charge in Vermont -- He's already had three in New York.

"Just so the record is clear, the state is going to be filing a motion for forfeiture and sale of the vehicle," Grand Isle County State's Attorney Doug Disabito tells the court.

Outside, Disabito explains his plans in Moore’s case. “This is a DUI-5, and I am seeing far too many cases like this,” he said. Disabito says repeat DUIs are piling up on his desk and offenders are not respecting the law. “We are talking about habitual people that are driving while their license is suspended for a DUI or people who are continuing to drive while intoxicated.”

“There were a lot of people who worked extraordinarily hard on this bill,” said Governor Howard Dean when he signed Vermont’s forfeiture law back in 1998. It was intended to get tough on DUIs and keep repeat drunk drivers off the road by taking away their access to vehicles.

Critics at the time said it would hurt families and be expensive for the state, but the bill passed and the first car seized was in August 1999.

But just two years later, the state had only taken three cars off the road. They then used federal funding to hire a full-time special prosecutor to pursue more cases. By 2004, 80 vehicles had been seized. That federal funding eventually ran out, and the law gathered dust -- until today.

"Just as someone commits armed robbery, we take their gun. That's the instrument of the crime. People are habitual driving while intoxicated or driving with a suspended license because of a DUI. We will take that instrument too, if we can," Disabito said.

Critics of the law, including Vt. Defender General Matt Valerio, remain opposed for the same reasons they always have. "It represents a very small number of the DUIs overall, and those are people who are chronic alcoholics usually," Valerio said. "The law deals with them in the criminal system by longer jail terms, by substance abuse drug courts."

Disabito says he will consider forfeiture on a case-by-case basis. "This is about protecting the public," he said.

As for Christopher Moore’s case, Disabito says that will be brought up in a different case at a different date.

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