When Francisco Almonte's old Toyota Celica was involved in a minor accident a few blocks from home in Queens, New York, the last thing he expected was to see his face splashed across the city's newspapers. This kind of accident, in which no-one was hurt, happens hundreds of times a day in this and every other American city. But at 6.20pm last Sunday, it was exactly the kind of traffic incident cops had been waiting for. Mr Almonte had the misfortune of being the first man arrested under a controversial New York City crackdown on drunk-driving. Using existing forfeiture statutes, the city's authorities intend to confiscate the vehicle of every driver they catch at the wheel while over the limit, and the 56-year-old chef was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But his bad luck was perfect from a public relations point of view. Mr Almonte not only had nearly twice the legal blood alcohol level of 0.1 per cent, it transpired that he had been arrested for drunk-driving on no less than eight previous occasions, and was still on probation from his previous offence. Assuming he is convicted - and possibly even if he isn't - Mr Almonte can rest assured he will never see his Celica again. It was apparently worth only US$650 (HK$5,070), but to both sides of the argument in a simmering debate over civil liberties, that isn't the point. What matters to the police, and to the city's crime-busting mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, is that the man behind the wheel was a perfect example of the kind of irresponsible and dangerous driver the crackdown is designed to eradicate; and what matters to opponents of the programme is that for every acknowledged problem driver like Mr Almonte, there are scores of normally law-abiding citizens for whom losing their car will be an assault on their constitutional rights. That there is a problem with what Americans usually call DWI (driving while intoxicated) is beyond question; there were 16,200 alcohol-related traffic deaths in the US in 1997, and while that number has declined by around 25 per cent during the decade, that does not factor in the hundreds of thousands of other people who are hurt or maimed in the same accidents. Mr Giuliani, like other officials, is of the opinion that simply arresting DWI offenders and suspending their licence is not enough of a deterrent. He and his legal advisers believe that hitting them hard in the wallet by taking away their cars will do the trick. Under his scheme, cars will be forfeited under the same local and federal laws which allow law enforcement to confiscate the assets of drug dealers and other organised criminals. The only way the cops don't get their hands on the car is if it belongs to someone else or is a rental vehicle. Around 20 state governments, including New York state, allow for the confiscation of cars of drunk-drivers, but such laws are either rarely enforced or only used for hardcore recidivists. The shocking thing about the New York City operation is that even first-time offenders will lose their cars, no matter how marginally they are over the limit. Given that there were 6,368 DWI arrests in the city last year, that's a lot of wheels - with no distinction between a US$600 rust-heap and a US$60,000 Mercedes. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the chief defender of citizens' constitutional rights, calls the law 'draconian' and has pledged to fight it in court. The ACLU's chief concern is that seizing a car before the driver has been found guilty goes against most Americans' concept of due process. And even if one is acquitted, the city intends to make it hard (and therefore expensive) for the driver to win his car back through civil action. 'The police should not be in the business of acting as judge, jury and used-car dealer, which is what happens when they start seizing cars based on nothing more than suspicion,' said Normal Siegel, head of the ACLU's New York chapter. The debate is causing a moral dilemma for virtually every New Yorker with a car. While it is virtually impossible to defend the conduct of repeat offenders like Mr Almonte, few would deny they have sometimes driven home from a party unsure how close they are to the limit, and most surely resent the constrictions the law will place on their socialising. But the moral ramifications transcend the usual liberal-versus-conservative politics. Even Ronald Kuby, the city's most rabidly left-wing civil rights lawyer, said: 'Drunken driving is the most dangerous and unprosecuted crime in this country.' He predicted that courts would find it constitutional as long as DWI suspects were given a prompt hearing to resolve their cases. Even if Mr Almonte is a perfect poster boy for the crackdown, the second man to lose his car, only two hours later, could serve as an equally valid argument that the punishment does not fit the crime. The driver, a 28-year-old Polish immigrant, was only 0.01 per cent over the limit, and had never been arrested for DWI before, but he is virtually sure of never seeing his US$1,680 car again - even though he claims to rely on it to get to work every day. Given that the city's police are currently under fire for the shooting death of an African immigrant - one of several racially-tinged allegations of brutality - they could find this new task further complicating their work. Ethnic minorities already complain that they are unfairly stopped by traffic cops purely because of their race - they call it 'driving while black' - and if minorities are seen to forfeit their vehicles at a much heavier toll than whites, one can be sure that community leaders will not fail to notice. This, of course, will not worry Mr Giuliani, who would remain a hero to most New Yorkers even if he had done nothing else apart from preside over plummeting crime rates. One does not have to be a white, male Republican to love the fact that the city's streets have been reclaimed from the muggers and drug dealers, and Mr Giuliani knows that even if tough law-enforcement can make the city's famously liberal residents somewhat queasy, they are likely to turn a blind eye in the greater interests of public security. Whether he squares off against Hillary Clinton for the US Senate, or waits another year to run for the New York governor's mansion, Mr Giuliani is already campaigning. And the rare vote that he might lose from a Wall Street broker angry at having his BMW confiscated will be of little note compared to the wider support this drunk-driving offensive will probably gather.