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Protect the innocent

In its zeal to punish drunken drivers, the state Legislature passed a bad law last year that could hurt people. How bad is it? Consider this nightmare scenario:

You buy a used car from someone you don't know and before you even figure out how the radio works, the car is impounded. It could happen _ if the previous owner had been convicted of drunken driving.

The government could even impound your car if it is stolen by a drunken driver, or if it is loaned to someone who is convicted of driving it while drunk.

The law's problems go beyond simple matters of fairness. It leaves important questions unanswered. Who has the authority to impound a car? Where does a car owner go to appeal? How can a judge enforce such an order? The law doesn't address any of those fundamental questions.

One good thing about the law is that it at least requires a conviction before impoundment. Law enforcement agencies have interpreted other laws as giving them the authority to seize someone's property even without a conviction.

A group of county judges in Hillsborough already has ruled the new drunken driving law unconstitutional, and a Pinellas judge is expected to hear a challenge to the law soon. But those rulings apply only in those judges' courtrooms. The law needs to be changed statewide.

Fortunately, the Legislature is in session and ought to be able to fix this section of the law to make it equitable. Few disagree with the need to deal seriously with convicted drunken drivers. But the rights of innocent people shouldn't be trampled in the process.

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