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Minnesota Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse in DWI Car Forfeiture

Today the Minnesota Supreme Court released a decision interpreting a Minnesota Statute in a way to deprive an innocent spouse of their legal right to keep their car, jointly owned by a spouse who drove it in violation of a law.

Divorce to Protect Your Property?

The Case, David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, A07-2023, December 17, 2009, was another 4-3 split and splintered decision – with the majority reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, to rule against the civil property rights of the individual.

The court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), does not apply in a case of joint ownership of a vehicle if one of the joint owners is also the offender causing forfeiture of the vehicle.

The majority’s new rule is that all joint owners of a motor vehicle must be innocent in order for any owner to employ the innocent owner defense in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d).

As Justice Paul Anderson points out in his dissent,

“The context of the case before us involves a DWI forfeiture statute that contemplates both the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit motor vehicles used in the commission of designated offenses and protection for innocent motor vehicle owners. Thus, the context within which we must conduct our analysis is a disfavored forfeiture statute that we must strictly construe which means that if we have any doubt about the application of the statute, that doubt is to be resolved in favor of joint owner … .”

The case involves Minnesota’s DWI forfeiture statute which creates both a presumption that a person arrested for suspected DWI will forfeit their car to the State; and also contains an affirmative defense for innocent owners of cars driven by someone else arrested for suspected DWI.

What about the case where a car is jointly owned by two or more people, such as the family car that the non-offending spouse needs to get to work?

Justice Page concludes his dissent with:

“I would construe the word ‘owner’ to refer to each individual owner throughout section 169A.63. Thus, under subdivision 7(d), a vehicle is not subject to forfeiture if any of its owners can demonstrate that he or she, individually, did not know the vehicle would be used contrary to law. Similarly, under subdivision 7(d), it is up to each of the owners to demonstrate that he or she ‘took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.’ An owner that can make the required showing cannot be divested of his or her interest in the vehicle, which subdivision 1(h) instructs extends to the whole of the vehicle. Because Mr. Laase made the required showing, I would hold that his interest in the vehicle is not subject to forfeiture.”

Is this another bad 4-3 splintered decision, with the slim majority again ruling against the rights of the individual?  So it would seem.  At least in this unjust situation, the Minnesota legislature could fix it next legislative session by amending the statute the court was interpreting.

Will the legislature repair this injustice in the law?  Public anger has been building for years over the use of asset forfeiture laws to legally steal private property, with the excuse of some crime having been committed, or the possibility of one. 

The most frequent use of these laws has been in the areas of Minnesota asset forfeitures in drug cases, and in DWI cases.  Most of the injustices in these laws are common to all types of asset forfeiture statutes (whether based upon drugs, DWI or prostitution).  The innocent owner issue is only one of many.

One of these issues is the conflict of interest created by allowing the law enforcement agency which legally steals the property from the citizen, to keep much of the money proceeds from that seizure and forfeiture.  Two of the Justices concurring with the majority in David Lee Laase  vs 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe highlighted the issue, in Justice Barry Anderson’s concurrence:

“[T]here is reason to question the balance struck by the legislature between various competing interests.  For example, given the general disfavor of forfeiture statutes, the wisdom of vesting the right to possession of a forfeited vehicle in the law enforcement agency responsible for the arrest of a defendant and the forfeiture of a defendant‘s vehicle is not immediately evident. See Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.63, subds. 1(b), 2, and 3 (2008).  But such issues are for the legislature to address, not this court.

The 4-3 majority opinion, was supported by two concurring Justices who wrote, in essence, that the law  was unfair and should be changed – but by the legislature not the court (see quote above).  The three dissenting Justices also noted the serious unfairness of the statute as interpreted by the majority opinion.

Therefore five of the seven essentially agreed on one thing – the statute allowing the government to take the private property of an innocent spouse or other co-owner is unfair and should be changed.

This issue was referenced in a recent article in the Star Tribune newspaper, Crime fighters gone rogue, where a  leader of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force explained in relation to financial stress due to underfunding from the legislature, he:

“… turned in 2003 to the only major source of cash he could find: money seized from suspected drug dealers, gang members and other targets. Over the next two years, Ryan told state examiners, his unit survived on virtually nothing else.

‘We had no money and we were begging, borrowing and I hesitate to say stealing, that would be the wrong place, but … that’s the way we were operating,’ Ryan said, according to a transcript of his formal interview with the Legislative Auditor’s Office.”

Gallagher Criminal Defense logo smIs it fair to law enforcement officers to create laws like this with inherent conflicts of interest – inciting them to take from the poor, and give to their own agency of the government?  Can a normal human be completely immune to such powerful temptations?  Why should Minnesota laws encourage such mischief upon the individual people of Minnesota?

Let’s see if the Minnesota legislature will reform forfeiture laws in Minnesota this year.

By Thomas C. Gallagher, a Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.

4 thoughts on “Minnesota Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse in DWI Car Forfeiture”

  1. Tom

    Good blog. The Court missed the point here. They bent over backwards to take the vehicle and “interpreted” the statute to suit their beliefs. I wonder whether the decision would have been different had the co-owners not been husband and wife. Factually, it is troublesome that this case involved a refusal, something which can be arbitrarily created by an impatient officer or a misunderstanding at the police station.

    1. I agree. Police officers have an incentive to claim a person is “refusing” to consent to a search of thier bodily fluids or breath by submitting a sample for testing. What incentive? Probably a half hour or more to be saved – sometimes with an obnoxious suspect. This is a conflict of interest for the police officer, when dispassionate fact-gathering should be their only agenda. Now, with Minnesota’s draconian DWI forefeiture statutes, they have yet another conflict of interest – even more so since their police department gets to keep the money from any vehicle they seize! And in many situations, the vehicle could not be forefieted unless the driver “refused.” Who initially decides whether the driver “refused?” The cop. The same cop who could save the time on getting a chemical test sample, and make the money for his department on the seized car they take from that driver and sell!

  2. Great article Tom.

    Couldn’t agree more that the slim majority got it wrong on this one, and that court rulings should NOT be based on how a statute is interpreted by the judges. Hopefully the legislature will realize this and make some changes.

    But it is the conflict of interest point you make that is almost if not more troubling. How can we have laws in place that allow a police department to profit from enforcing the law?! Doesn’t anyone in the legislature wonder that this might be a really bad idea? That it might lead to cops behaving badly, like those on the gang strike force? Argh….

    By the way, I recall hearing that in the Laase case, the Tahoe only had 1500 miles on it, and was paid for. Hmmm….with no lien to pay off, that could buy a really nice pool table for the break room.

  3. I wonder how the legislatures would react to this forfeiture law is they new a medical condition out in the country while giving someone a ride, forced the passenger to become the driver to get the owner of the vehicle into town which resulted in him getting pulled over and sited with a .10 DUI and now the owner of the vehicle has not only medical problems but no vehicle either. Is this fair when the owner was unaware of his condition, just giving a ride.

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