Category Archives: asset forfeiture

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.

 

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.