Religious use of marijuana defense prevails in Minnesota Rastafarian case.

Is religious use of marijuana a defense to a marijuana criminal charge?  A recent Minnesota Court of Appeals case indicates the answer may be “yes.”  In an unpublished opinion, In the matter of the Welfare of J.J.M.A.,  A13-0295, filed September 23, 2013, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a juvenile’s delinquency adjudication based on his sincerely held religious belief as a Rastafarian, on a petty misdemeanor marijuana paraphernalia charge.

Rastaman-Vibration  The fifteen year old boy was a practicing Rastafarian – a religion that has incorporated religious use of marijuana for nearly 100 years.  The lower court found him guilty of the paraphernalia charge, despite also finding that “Rastafari is a true religion and that J.J.M.A. has a sincerely held belief in the tenets of that religion,” because he “failed to satisfy his burden of showing that the Rastafari religion requires him to carry his pipe with him at all times.”  The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that adjudication of guilt, based on the Minnesota Constitution’s freedom-of-conscience clause, article 1, section 16:

The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed . . . nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted . . . ; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state.

Minnesota’s Constitution provides more protection for religious freedom than the United States Constitution does.  “’This language is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart’ because it ‘precludes even an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom.’”  State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn. 1990) (Hershberger II).

The court analyzed the four prongs of the compelling state interest balancing test:

1) whether the individual holds a sincerely held belief;

2) whether the regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs;

3) whether the state’s interest is overriding or compelling; and,

4) whether the regulation uses the least restrictive means to accomplish the state’s interest.

The court ruled that the evidence at trial satisfied the defense burden to establish a firmly held belief worthy of protection under section 16.  It contrasted this case with past cases where the defendants had failed to meet the burden to establish a sincerely held religious belief, due to being unable to connect his conduct to a religious practice or principle.

The court stated,  ”once an individual has demonstrated a sincerely held religious belief intended to be protected by section 16, the burden shifts to the state ‘to demonstrate that public safety cannot be achieved by proposed alternative means,’” and that the state failed to meet this burden in this case.   Though the case did not expressly address the applicability of the defense to a marijuana possession case, it contains language that may be helpful in doing so.

Given the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol, presumably the state will never be able to meet its burden of proving that restricting religious freedom with a statute that criminalizes marijuana possession somehow improves public safety.

Thomas C Gallagher is a marijuana lawyer in Minneapolis.

Thomas Gallagher Elected President of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice.

Thomas Gallagher was elected President of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice by a unanimous vote of its members on January 8, 2011.

The Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice (MSCJ) is the oldest association of criminal defense lawyers in Minnesota.  It is a lawyers’ College, meeting each month - sharing information and continuing legal education, providing  support for litigation to help protect the rights of Minnesotans.

Leading the Way.

The Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice also fights for justice both legislatively and through the courts.  For example, the MSCJ Source Code Coalition led by MSCJ has been litigating the most significant and expensive fight against Minnesota’s unfair DWI laws in history:  the CMI-Minnesota Intoxilyzer machine computer source code litigation in Minnesota.

Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice attorneys fight for the civil rights and constitutional rights of the People against the government.

Countermeasures at a DWI Stop: the Party Question

Is it a crime to drink and drive? Of course it is not.  But there are people out there – like MADD people – who appear hellbent upon changing the laws to bring back the Alcohol Prohibition, one step at a time.

It used to be “drunk driving” was a crime. Then in the 1970s the criminal laws were expanded to include “per se impaired driving laws.”   Per se roughly translates from the Latin to “the thing itself” or “by itself.”  A per se drunk driving law is a law that makes driving with an arbitrary alcohol-level a crime – even if the driver is not drunk, not impaired at all. That’s why you don’t hear the term “drunk driving” much anymore.  But why should it be a crime to drive when driving skills are not impaired?

Ok.  So the laws are unfair, and morally bankrupt – punishing the innocent and their families for no good purpose.  Fine.  There it is.  So how can you protect yourself and your family from this potential injustice?

What can a person do during a DWI stop to protect their rights?

This is mostly a question that criminal defense lawyers hear at a party.  Why?  Because almost all people stopped and later charged with DWI didn’t do any of these things.  But it can make for great conversation at a party.  There are a few different approaches and answers to the question.  So let’s narrow our hypothetical, and provide one.

Since most people stopped for a possible DWI have an alcohol concentration of less than 0.15, have no priors, and have not exhibited impaired driving conduct – let’s start with all of those assumptions, as well as assuming Minnesota laws.  Given the low speed limits these days and the most drivers travel faster than the speed limit most of the time, let’s assume a police officer stops the driver for speeding late one Friday or Saturday.   The police squad car take-down lights are visible in the rear-view mirror.  Now what?

The Police Officer Approaches the Vehicle

Police are trained to observe all of your actions and note any that could be interpreted as supportive of suspicion of impairment (and ignore the rest).  At this phase these include:

  • odor of alcohol
  • eyes – “bloodshot, watery”
  • couldn’t find or fumbled with driver’s license and insurance card
  • admitted drinking, coming from a bar, a party

What are some potentially effective countermeasures, then? If the window is not open, or open about an inch or so – that is plenty to pass the drivers license and insurance card through, but not enough to expose the odor of alcohol.  You can refuse to do lower the window to force the officer to make a forceful command to do so, making it difficult for them to argue you did so voluntarily.  When speaking to the police officer through the almost closed window, the driver can avoid eye contact.  This prevents the officer from being able to observe the cliché “bloodshot watery eyes” they imagine come only with drinking.  It’s a good idea to have the drivers license and insurance card in hand immediately after stopping, well before the police officer walks up to the vehicle to request those.  They are in your hands already, which are in plain sight on the steering wheel.  If asked “have you been drinking tonight?” you are not required to answer or answer responsively.  It is a bad idea to lie, for many reasons.  It is also a bad idea to admit facts the officer can use to build “probable cause” to ask you out of the car, or for arrest later.

If you were stopped for speeding, the police officer should just write you a speeding ticket and send you on your way – unless you give him or her probable cause or reasonable suspicion to justify asking you out of your vehicle.

Police ask you to step out of the car.  Now what?

If you use the car or car door for support when getting out or walking, they will note that as suspicious.  So don’t.  They will ask you to walk behind your car, in front of theirs.  Their squad car lights will be on full bore.  They will ask you to perform field exercises they like to call “Field Sobriety Tests.”  These are not scientifically valid, though the government claims otherwise.  Sober, trained police officers “fail” these “tests.”  How will you “pass” them?  And who is your judge?  The police officer!  What to do then?  Do not perform field exercises when asked to do so.  Do not do “Field Sobriety Tests!”  Common ones include:

  • Nine step walk and turn
  • One leg stand
  • Recite the alphabet, backwards etc.
  • Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (follow the pen or finger with eyes only, without moving head)
  • Walk a straight line

You cannot be required by law to do any of these. It would be a foolish mistake to willingly do any of them.

“Preliminary Breath Test” (PBT)

Minnesota statutes authorize police officers to require a driver to blow into a PBT machine – a portable breath-alcohol machine only under certain conditions where there is a basis to suspect DWI or selected other alcohol-related offenses.  Don’t worry about whether those preconditions exist.  Your lawyer can do that later if need be.  What is important is that a PBT machine report of 0.08 or more can provide probable cause to arrest for DWI, and so can “refusal” to perform a PBT. Refusing a PBT is not a crime.  That would only provide probable cause to arrest.  One can imagine a logical person, knowing that, deciding to refuse the PBT if they felt sure they would end up with a PBT report of well over .08, for example .20 or more.  That person might feel they would have nothing to lose by refusing – since they would be arrested either way.  Compare that to a person who believed they would get a PBT report of less than 0.08.  That person would be foolish to refuse it, since it could result in their not being arrested.

Keep in mind that the little PBT machine on the side of the road, is not the same as the big, evidentiary breath-alcohol machine at the police station.  If a person is arrested, they can be asked to submit a sample for alcohol testing again, even though they already submitted to a PBT.  The PBT report is not admissible in a criminal DWI trial because they are too unreliable and inaccurate.

If arrested, then what?

Every step further in the chain of events described above brings the driver closer to arrest (unless the PBT is less than 0.08).   If the PBT reads too high, that and the rest will be followed typically with handcuffs and the back of the squad car.  Then normally the arresting officer will wait for back up or a tow truck, and leave for the police station once either arrives.  Talking is not a good idea at any point, including while in the squad car.

At or near the police station (or hospital for a blood draw), the police normally read “the Minnesota Implied Consent Advisory” which informs the driver of certain legal rights.  The most important is your right to consult a lawyer before deciding whether to submit to chemical testing.

It is always, always, always – a good idea to call a lawyer first!  The police are required by law to help you do so.  If they fail to help you call a lawyer, the chemical test could be suppressed from evidence.  You should always make every effort to call a lawyer in this situation – even if you are still sitting in the squad car in handcuffs!  Tell the officer you want to call a lawyer.   This part is usually recorded – a good thing.

The other important right is secret in the sense that it is never mentioned in the “Implied Consent Advisory” by the cop.  what is it?  It is your Constitutional right to exculpatory evidence, as manifested in your statutory right to an “Additional Test.”  Say what?  You have the legal right in Minnesota to a Second Test, after the you provide the sample requested by police. In this situation, the arrested person should always, always, always request an Additional Test.  If you do, the police are only required to give you a phone to use.  You can use the phone to call whoever you need to call to arrange for an additional test.  See the midnight DWI jail call to a Minnesota lawyer blog post for more on this issue.

Stay safe out there.

By: Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis DWI Defense Lawyer

Prostitution and Minnesota Law

How can we best understand prostitution?  It involves two important aspects of human existence: sexuality and money.  Given the controversy each of these inspire, can it be any surprise that prostitution has been controversial as well?  Prostitution has likely been around longer than money has been – quite a long while.  Throughout the history of the world, and among its many peoples, there have been many different views on prostitution.

Do we believe that social harms are caused by our sexuality, our money, our prostitution?  Put that way – yes, we do.  We have a social consensus that these do cause or contribute to social harms.  This begs the question, then, what best to do about it?  Can the laws play a role in reducing these harms?  If so, how?  Apart from the best legal approach to reducing social harms related to prostitution, what are the laws currently in Minnesota, in the United States?

Social Harms of Prostitution Are Reduced in the Netherlands

 Malum Prohibitum

Criminal laws can divided into malum in se and malum prohibitum

Malum In Se is literally “Evil in itself.”  A criminal statute addressing malum in se is one which is naturally evil, like murder, theft, etc.  Crimes at common law were generally mala in se.   An offense malum prohibitum, however, is not naturally an evil, but by legal fiat becomes one as a consequence of its being forbidden; like some gambling, drugs, which have become unlawful in consequence of being forbidden.

Does a law forbidding something make it go away, or reduce the social harms that thing may cause?  The examples of drug prohibition laws in the United States show us that the answer is “no.”  In fact, criminalizing disfavored social practices like alcohol and other drugs, and prostitution has greatly increased social harms associated with them.

Which social harms associated with prostitution can be attributed to the act of prostitution alone, as opposed to the underground economy created by legal criminalization?  Considering that question further, let’s make a list of social harms commonly associated with prostitution:

  1. Coercion.  Where prostitution is legal, there is little or no coercion of sex workers, compared to places where it is unregulated and criminalized.  Human trafficking thrives within a context of criminalized prostitution.  Where prostitution is legal and regulated, the hypocritical double standard and corruption issues do not provide a barrier to cracking down on kidnapping and human trafficking.  The use of drugs, threats, and violence to coerce sex workers is enabled and encouraged by criminalization.
  2. Exploitation of Children.   Where legal and regulated, it is rare to find children or underage people working in the sex industry.  In Minnesota, as in other places where it is crime, anything goes and prostitutes commonly begin before the age under 18.
  3. Nuisance.  In recent years, prostitution has been called a “neighborhood livability crime.”  Were it legal and regulated it could be zoned into a red light district, as pornography has been in Minneapolis.  Another recent trend, the move of prostitution from the streets to the web, has reduced this issues a bit in recent years.
  4. Corruption.
  5. The above are all direct products of criminalization; while those below are related to the act of prostitution, but aggravated by criminalization.
  6. Public Health.  Certain diseases are commonly spread through sexual activity, such as AIDS.  In places where prostitution is legal, regulation enforces frequent medical examinations, education, and makes police and other help more available to resist coercion.  Drug addiction overlaps with prostitution more where it is criminalized.
  7. Morality.  Many view the act of prostitution as immoral and unethical as a general matter, though compared to others, a minor sin.  Of course, many things just short of it are viewed differently.  What about compassionate use of prostitution for the physically handicapped, etc.?  Should the ‘law of man’ allow one to exercise virtue, and leave the domain of saving souls to God’s law?  By binding someone’s hands, do you not prevent them from exercising the free will to be virtuous?  Which is more immoral, prostitution or criminal laws creating and aggravating all of these social harms?

Minnesota Laws on Prostitution

Prostitution is an unregulated crime in Minnesota, part of the underground economy.  Minnesota’s criminal statutes on prostitution address the both the common and the unusual.

By far the most common prostitution prosecutions in Minnesota are those against would be customers and providers.  These are generally the result of police sting operations, which employ deception.  Traditionally these began on the streets, often motor vehicles, or in storefronts or other places.  In recent years, they often begin online over the internet, for example on Craigslist.  These are generally charged as misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor crimes.

Felony prostitution crimes in Minnesota are relatively rare, and include those involving people under 18 years old, pimps and promoters, and coercion.  It is likely that the fact that prostitution in Minnesota thrives in an unregulated, underground economy makes it extremely difficult for law enforcement (police) to effectively investigate these kinds of problems.  Ironically, legalizing prostitution would make it vastly easier for law enforcement to target these higher priority problems directly (under 18 years old, pimps and promoters, and coercion).

By Minnesota prostitution lawyer  Thomas C Gallagher .

Legislative Update: The Minnesota Bong Water Crime Case

Remember the recent Minnesota Supreme Court case that took a literal interpretation of a statute - to an absurd result - ruling that water could enhance the severity of a drug crime?  It was a bare majority decision, 4-3, with a concurring opinion and strongly worded dissents.  After the majority, concurring and dissenting opinions are all tallied, five out of seven wrote that the legislature should amend the statute to cure the injustice.  The case ruled that Bong Water (water used in a water pipe) was a “mixture” of “25 grams or more” supporting a criminal conviction for Controlled Substance crime in the first degree (30 years of prison maximum), though it contained only trace amounts of illegal drugs.

Tap Water Contains Drugs

The case is Minnesota v  Peck, Minnesota Supreme Court, October 22, 2009.  The blog article here, written the day the opinion was published is: Minnesota Court Waters Down Legal Definition of Illegal Drugs: Toilet Water Now Criminal to Possess.

The case gained worldwide infamy.  If trace amounts of criminalized drugs in bong water could be a crime based upon the weight of the water “mixture,” then would not trace amonts of illegal drugs in our drinking water also be a crime to possess?  And if that is the case, which of course it must be, then is not every citizen of Minnesota a drug criminal – by virtue of possessing river sourced tap water?  (Those with well water presumably can rest easy, without fear of a drug-police home invasion.)

A Bill in now being considered by the Minnesota Legislature, for the Safe Drug Disposal Act is an attempt to ameliorate the problem of pharmaceutical drugs in our drinking water supply, and rivers.  It is a crime in Minnesota to possess prescription drugs without a prescription for those drugs.

Will Minnesota lawmakers heed the call of the Minnesota Supreme Court and public outrage and undo the “Minnesota Bong Water Case?”

A Bill has been introduced in the Minnesota House, H.F. No. 2757, to amend Minnesota Statutes section 152.01, subdivision 9a, to read:

Subd. 9a.  Mixture.  “Mixture” means a preparation, compound, mixture, or substance containing a controlled substance, regardless of where purity is relevant only when weighing the residue of a controlled substance.

If adopted into law, this would bring back proportionality of the severity of a drug crime to quantity.

Advocates of drug legalization (regulation and taxation) may have mixed feelings about this reform.  Yes – it would cure an outlandish, gross injustice to people facing exaggerated convictions and prison terms based upon possession of water or other non-drug media.  On the other hand, the Prohibitionists really shot themselves in the foot on this one.  The Minnesota Bong Water case has helped undermine what public confidence there was in criminal drug laws and their enforcement.  As stated in the dissent in the Peck case:

The majority’s decision to permit bong water to be used to support a first-degree felony controlled-substance charge runs counter to the legislative structure of our drug laws, does not make common sense, and borders on the absurd…the result is a decision that has the potential to undermine public confidence in our criminal justice system.

To the extent the public confidence in our criminal justice system is undermined by Peck, the Minnesota Bong Water Case, and its literal interpretation of the statutory definition of a drug; this hastens the day when common sense will finally prevail with the Repeal of all drug Prohibition laws in Minnesota.

Written by Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Defense Attorney.

The Moral Peril of Minnesota Asset Forfeiture Laws

The Minnesota Senate is now considering a Bill to reform abusive asset forfeiture laws, SF2613.

Let’s review Minneosta’s current law on asset forfeiture (government takes your money): 

  1. The government (police) can take your property at any time if suspicious to them, even if you are innocent.
  2. The burden is on you, not them, to do something about getting a court to look at it.
  3. If you do nothing, they keep your property, your money; and you lose; without any court or judge ever even seeing the case.
  4. If you want to do something about it, you need cash for a lawyer and court filing fees.  The law provides the government a free lawyer and requires them to pay no court filing fees.
  5. The police agency that targeted you and took you down gets to keep 70% commission on the cash, valuables, your vehicle they seize from you.  Could this affect their honesty about their investigation; or, the appearance of propriety?

Property rights for common people are relatively recent individual human rights, against the government or the king.  In 1066, William the Conqueror seized nearly all the land in England.  He exercised complete power over the land, but granted fiefs to landholder stewards, who paid fees and provided military services as a condition for use of the King’s land and people. 

William the Conqueror

Centuries later, the Magna Carta asserted that cash payments were required for expropriations of land.  Over time, tenants held more ownership rights rather than only possessory rights over their land. 

The Third Amendment to the United States Constitution says: 

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” 

The intention of this amendment was to prevent soldiers being quartered in private property as the British armed forces had done in Colonial America by under the Quartering Act before the American Revolutionary War. 

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution says: 

“No person shall be … nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” 

The idea was to destroy what was left of feudalism, where the king or the government owns property, and the common people owned nothing, or owned nothing except at the discretion, whim or caprice of the government.  The third, fifth, eighth and fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution all are attempts to further this goal.  But history has repeatedly shown us that this struggle for individual property rights against theft or seizure or taking by the ruling government has been ongoing.  Ground has been gained and lost, and gained again over the years, both in politics and in law. 

Hypothetical?

Imagine that you are peacefully driving down the road, having an average day.  Then, you are stopped by people in a vehicle armed with weapons.  They hold you against your will.  They question you in a threatening manner.  The ask for your “consent” to search you and your vehicle, though they make it  appear that it will happen regardless.  They take your personal valuables.  They seize your vehicle.  There is no court process.  It’s just gone.  They have it now.  You no longer do. 

What would you call this?  Armed robbery? 

What if the “people in a vehicle armed with weapons” who stopped you were police officers of the State of Minnesota, acting under the color of the laws of Minnesota?  Now what do you call it? 

“Administrative Asset Forfeiture.”  What does that mean?  

Asset forfeiture laws are a type of government “taking” of private property that has been around a long time, but they have degenerated in recent years from “Judicial Asset Forfeiture” after conviction into “Administrative Asset Forfeiture” on a police officer’s view of suspicion.  What’s the difference?  First, a little background and context. 

If you steal from a thief, is that stealing?

Ask Robin Hood, or the Sheriff of Nottingham.  

There are two basic moral justifications offered for laws permitting the government to seize and keep private property suspected to have some connection to crime – instrumentality and criminal proceeds

Instrumentality.  If a burglar uses special tools to commit a burglary, then the government seizes and keeps those as instrumentality of the crime, this may somewhat disable the burglar from committing a similar crime.  Almost all asset forfeiture seizures in Minnesota are of this type.  The instrumentality rationale for property forfeiture, however, has been stretched wafer thin.  It is now most commonly used in cases of suspected petty crimes like DWI, prostitution and banned drugs possession; not commonly in serious or violent crimes. 

Criminal proceeds.  This type is relatively rare, and involves and attempt to trace (equitable tracing) the source of the funds used to purchase an asset to crime.  These usually involve larger dollar amounts only, well over $100,000 per case.  The type of crime alleged is less important. 

Is the Property Guilty?  Is the Owner?

Nothing Personal: In Rem Jurisdiction.  Asset forfeiture cases, the few that ever make it into court, are usually captioned with the claimant as a party to the lawsuit against the property.  Rem is Latin meaning “thing.” When courts exercise in rem jurisdiction, they assert authority over a thing, not a person.  Like much in the law, there are historical reasons for this. 

If the justification for the “taking” of another’s property is that the owner is a criminal, or that the property is somehow related to crime; should we be certain that the owner really did commit a crime in connection with the property? 

Should police be able to seize and keep your vehicle or other property even though you’ve not been convicted of a crime?  Before you get a hearing before a fair and neutral magistrate? 

In Minnesota today, police can seize your vehicle or other property under circumstances they view as suspicious, keep it, sell it and keep the cash, unless you file a court challenge “EXACTLY AS PRESCRIBED IN MINNESOTA STATUTES SECTION …” within 60 days.  You’ll need money for lawyer and court filing fees – just to get a day in court.  The money they get from your property after they sell it?  “70 percent of the money or proceeds must be forwarded to the appropriate agency…” i.e., the Police Agency that originally took your Private Property.  This is Minnesota’s current “administrative” asset forfeiture scheme. 

What about “Judicial Asset Forfeiture?”

Judicial asset forfeiture is slightly more fair in that it affords procedural due process – the right to notice and a hearing before a neutral magistrate before the government can permanently keep your property.  A serious problem with this type is that a criminal conviction is not currently required before the government can prevail in a judicial asset forfeiture case. 

Who are the victims of government asset forfeiture?

The salt of the earth - the common people of modest means have disproportionately been the victims of government abuses, negligence and shoddy practices in the area of criminal law generally.  When it comes to asset forfeiture laws, it is no different.  When police officers on an asset-forfeiture treasure hunt take cash, gold, vehicles, other valuables from a person who is never charged, never convicted of any crime; what is the cost-benefit ratio for that person to fight for return of the property in court?  Could they even afford (hire a lawyer, pay a court filing fee) to if they wanted to?  Can they do all that in time to meet the 60 day deadline?  Would that cost too much relative to what was stolen from them by police to be worth it?  Do they have enough faith in the legal process to believe it would be fair, anyway?  What will the medium term ramifications of this be, politically? 

The innocent are victims of asset forfeiture laws:  Sometimes the innocent owner is not accused of having any criminal association, but merely an association with another who is suspected, such as a spouse, parent or employer.  This is an anti-marriage law, that encourages divorce of a troubled spouse.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recently published a case that makes this clear, and a majority of the Justices asked the Minnesota legislature to reform the statutes, in the Laase case.  So will the legislature and the government heed this call, from the Court and form the People? 

Is the Minnesota government corrupt, victimizing the weak?  Are its laws a corrupting influence on our good police officers? 

Has the time has come to reform (or repeal entirely) asset forfeiture laws in Minnesota?  Call the legislature.  Support the Reform Bill. 

Author: Thomas C Gallagher, Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer.  Link to his Minnesota Drug Forfeiture Law page.

Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse under DWI Car Forfeiture Statute

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.   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 (Justices Lorie S. Gildea, Eric J. Magnuson, G. Barry Anderson and Christopher J. Dietzen in the majority, with Dissents from Justices Paul H. Anderson, Alan C. Page and Helen M. Meyer.) 

Divorce to Protect Your Property?

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.” 

Justice Gildea wrote the 4-3 majority opinion.  However, only one other justice joined her opinion, Magnuson.  The two concurring Justices 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 form 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.” 

Is 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.