Category Archives: New Laws

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.

 

Less Than One-Quarter Gram Possession Gross Misdemeanor Crime < New Minnesota Laws 2016

The 2016 Minnesota Legislature made some changes to Minnesota “Controlled Substance” crime laws, effective August 1, 2016.  One of those created a new Gross Misdemeanor level crime for certain “controlled substance” possession crimes, for less than 0.25 grams or one dosage unit or less – but only for a person “who has not been previously convicted of a violation of this chapter or a similar offense in another jurisdiction; and only for possession of “controlled substances” other than heroin.  This is an improvement since before this new law, even these tiny amounts were charged as felony level crimes; and since a felony conviction can render a person unemployable in many jobs, lifetime loss of civil rights, severe immigration law consequences, and other big problems.

The statutory language is:

Minn. Stat. §152.025, Subd. 4 (a)(1) “the amount of the controlled substance possessed, other than heroin, is less than 0.25 grams or one dosage unit or less if the controlled substance was possessed in dosage units …”

hash-quarter-gram-lighter

one-quarter gram of hash relative to the size of a lighter

Does this mean defense lawyer will no longer need to litigate trace amount issues and cases?  No.  A Gross Misdemeanor is still a serious crime.  Also, this new law does not apply to heroin or federal cases.

What about marijuana, including derivatives such as hashish, wax, dabs?  Minnesota law still defines possession of a “small amount” of plant-form marijuana as a petty misdemeanor (not a crime, violation-fine only).  Minnesota Statutes §152.01, Subd. 16 defines Small amount: “‘Small amount’ as applied to marijuana means 42.5 grams or less. This provision shall not apply to the resinous form of marijuana.”  So, 0.24 grams or less of plant-form marijuana could be charged a petty misdemeanor violation, not a gross misdemeanor.  When it comes to the “resinous form of marijuana” (presumably hashish, wax, dabs, etc.), however, the “small amount” definition would not apply but the new trace amount Gross Misdemeanor possession law would apply – rather than a felony crime as before August 1, 2016.

What drugs could be charged as a quantity expressed in dosage units, rather than weight?  These could be divided into two categories: prescription drugs and underground economy drugs.  Most prescription drugs are made into and possessed in pill form.  A “dosage unit” could be one pill, or could be more than one pill, depending upon the recommendation of the drug maker, pharmacist, or prescribing physician.  For underground economy drugs, “one dosage unit” could be more than one pill, or more than one square of blotter paper with LSD on it.  For example, see State v. Palmer, 507 NW 2d 865 (Minn.App. 1993) (“four small squares on each sheet constituted a ‘hit’ or dosage unit.”).  Medical marijuana produced by a legal maker may be the same as prescription drugs, in terms of evidence of dosage units.

What about Minnesota Pretrial Diversion programs and statutory Stays of Adjudication under Minnesota Statutes §152.18?  They are still available for those charged with Minnesota Fifth Degree “Controlled Substance” Crime Fifth Degree, Gross Misdemeanor, since the Gross Misdemeanor charge is a Fifth Degree charge against a person without prior drug convictions.

Thomas Gallagher is a Minneapolis Drug Defense Lawyer.  He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Minnesota NORML.