Forfeiture Law: Minnesota Legislature Protects Marriage, Brings Back Innocent Owner Defense for Co-Owners

Imagine that you are married to someone who has been struggling with alcohol addiction.  Your spouse has been sober for an encouraging length of time.  Then one day you get a call.  Your spouse has had a slip and been arrested for DWI.  The police have seized your $40,000 car – the one he or she was driving at the time – for administrative forfeiture.  That doesn’t feel right, does it?  Could it be the last straw that stresses and breaks a struggling relationship, leading to another failed marriage?

Effective August 1, 2017 in Minnesota, as an innocent owner you will now be able to challenge the forfeiture of your vehicle to the government in court and assert the “innocent owner defense” even where your spouse was the DWI driver of that vehicle – thanks to the Minnesota legislature and Governor this year.  The new law, which amends Minnesota Statutes Section 169A.63, subdivision 7, effectively overrules a 2009 Minnesota Supreme Court case, Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 776 N.W.2d 431 (Minn. 2009).  In that case the court’s majority held that “innocent owner defense” in Minn. Stat. § 169A.63, subd. 7(d) (2008), did 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 rule was 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).  For a discussion of the Laase case the day the decision was released click here: Minnesota Supreme Court Rules Against Innocent Spouse under DWI Car Forfeiture Statute.

Though spouses may be the most often affected, as co-owners of a vehicle with a DWI offender, the law in this area goes beyond spouses and applies to “family or household members” of the offender who are co-owners.  The definition of “family or household member” is broad, and includes a parent, stepparent, or guardian; persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption as brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, first cousin, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece, grandparent, great-grandparent, great-uncle, great-aunt; and persons residing together or persons who regularly associate and communicate with one another outside of a workplace setting.

Who is an “owner?”  The innocent owner defense statute defines “owner” as “a person legally entitled to possession, use, and control of a motor vehicle, including a lessee of a motor vehicle if the lease agreement has a term of 180 days or more. There is a rebuttable presumption that a person registered as the owner of a motor vehicle according to the records of the Department of Public Safety is the legal owner.”  Note that the car title is prima facie evidence of ownership.  In other words, it creates a rebuttable presumption.  Ownership can be proven by other evidence as well.

What is the innocent owner defense?   As of August 1, 2017, Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 169A.63, subdivision 7 “Limitations on vehicle forfeiture.” will read:

“(d) A motor vehicle is not subject to forfeiture under this section if any of its owners who petition the court can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioning owner did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be used or operated in any manner contrary to law or that the petitioning owner took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender. If the offender is a family or household member of any of the owners who petition the court and has three or more prior impaired driving convictions, the petitioning owner is presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law. “Vehicle use contrary to law” includes, but is not limited to, violations of the following statutes:
(1) section 171.24 (violations; driving without valid license);
(2) section 169.791 (criminal penalty for failure to produce proof of insurance);
(3) section 171.09 (driving restrictions; authority, violations);
(4) section 169A.20 (driving while impaired);
(5) section 169A.33 (underage drinking and driving); and
(6) section 169A.35 (open bottle law).”

The burden of proof is on the owner petitioning to get their car back, to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” either that he or she “did not have actual or constructive knowledge that the vehicle would be used or operated in any manner contrary to law” or that he or she “took reasonable steps to prevent use of the vehicle by the offender.”  The term “constructive knowledge” is not commonly used outside a legal context.  “Constructive” here means, essentially, circumstantial evidence proving “knowledge.”  It may refer to the list that follows, for “family or household members” who are  “presumed to know of any vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.”  Though that last phrase may be ambiguous, it seems to refer to past (as opposed to future) “vehicle use by the offender that is contrary to law.”  This presumption is rebuttable, however, and so does not seem to change the burden of proof, already upon the owner asserting the innocent owner defense.  In other words, the burden is on the owner asserting lack of knowledge that he or she did not know.

Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis DWI Defense Lawyer who regularly represent people in forfeiture cases.

 

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